When Martin Fox, UK Minister for Schools, is found dead at his desk at the Department of Education one night, it is his colleague Caroline Barber who calls the police. Shocked and upset, she gives a brief statement then commutes to her home in Catford, one of the less salubrious areas of south-east London. A typical evening goes by, in which Caroline is criticised by her mother Jean (who lives in an annexe in the house), is ignored by her three children, and her husband Pete is drunk after his usual evening in the pub. The news of her boss’s death is not on the TV as a more “newsworthy” event has occurred – the prime minister has resigned.
When Caroline returns to work the next day, she finds to her shock that Fox’s death is being treated as self-inflicted. She tries to contact the young detective constable who interviewed her, only to be told that he has been transferred to another division. The inspector in charge of the enquiry refers to a suicide note stuck on Fox’s computer screen, which she knows was not there when she found the body.
Caroline is constantly wrong-footed as she struggles to find out what happened to Fox. Her temporary boss is a very unpleasant bureaucrat who forces Caroline to spend all her time looking for a lost CD-ROM. This CD was kept in a secure filing cabinet and contains the names, addresses, financial background and “special educational needs” status of the thousands of London schoolchildren who are being educated at academies, and hence would be embarrassing to the department if it was found in public. Academies (which are real) are government-encouraged schools run by head-teachers rather than having to adhere to local authority rules. They are therefore very unpopular with the educational authorities – it is Caroline’s usual job to manage the academy programme for the department, so hunting for a missing CD is something of a come-down, not to mention of little interest to her. Instead, she tries to find out what happened to Fox but is thwarted at every turn by police and colleagues alike. She eventually turns to a hard-bitten Fleet Street journalist, Angela Tate, for help in exposing what she increasingly thinks to be a cover-up that may reach to the highest parts of British politics.
The Loyal Servant is a refreshingly unusual novel for these times, reminding me somewhat of the novels written by Janet Neel between 1988 and 2001, in which protagonist Francesca Wilson works for the Department of Trade and Industry. Like Francesca, Caroline is a decent, intelligent woman, determined to do the right thing by her work and, in the little time she has left, by her family. As The Loyal Servant continues, though, it moves into full paranoid conspiracy thriller mode, in which all the characters and elements turn out to be connected. For example, Caroline’s carping mother Jean leads a group of protesters against the academy concept, bringing her into direct opposition with her daughter’s job. Not only this, but much later on in the book it turns out that Pete, Caroline’s semi-detached husband, works for the construction company which has all the government contracts for building the new academies. It also emerges late-on that Caroline herself is not entirely honest with the reader.
Caroline is threatened by a sinister security guard, cannot speak to Fox’s family at his funeral, and is prevented from accessing her own computer files – and worse, as the book continues and a family pet as well as people disappear, turn up, are threatened, attacked, and kidnapped. The many twists and turns of the plot are not always convincing, sometimes seeming to pop up to provide the next step in the narrative rather than for any persuasive reason. The lengths to which the criminals go (which include arson, break-ins, hired thugs and guns) are unrealistic, given that they could have avoided many of the dramatics at much earlier stages of the novel. The characters of Caroline and the journalist Angela, and the dynamics between them, are by far the most interesting parts of the book, bringing it to life and providing some genuine colour compared with the flat presentation of the remaining participants.
The Loyal Servant is self-published. It won the Lucy Cavendish fiction prize in 2001. It is no more or less readable than many books that are not self-published, but it needs proper developmental editing to smooth over and make more realistic various disconnected elements, as well as copy editing (for example, there is a difference between there’s and theirs!).
I purchased this book.