Friday 22 March 2024

Forgotten Book - The Siege of Trencher's Farm

Crime fiction is almost inevitably linked to violence of one kind or another. There aren't many truly victimless crimes and violence takes many forms, psychological as well as physical. For those of us who find violence horrific, crime fiction - when it is well written - offers readers, among other things, a means of coming to terms with a better understanding of violence and its well-springs. And I think it's good for writers to think about the way they deal with violence in their books; that is not in any way to suggest that violence should be excluded or sanitised, although personally, as a writer and as a reader I have no real interest in graphic descriptions of acts of violence.

Many years ago I watched the film Straw Dogs. I tend not to like Sam Peckinpah's films (all I can now recall of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, which I watched as a student, was that it was particularly dreadful), but anything starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George had to be worth watching. However, the graphic violence in the movie didn't appeal to me at all. So I steered well clear of the source novel, The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams.

However, I liked Williams' Hazell stories, written with Terry Venables under the name P.B. Yuill and his stand-alone Yuill horror novel with criminous elements The Bornless Keeper, was interesting. I discovered that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize and that Ian Rankin has a high regard for The Siege of Trencher's Farm. I was deterred by the fact that Williams supposedly wrote the novel in just nine days, but encouraged by the fact that he hated Straw Dogs and that for his part Peckinpah described the book as 'rotten'. So I've given it a go.

The novel was published in 1969 and is, I think, significantly different from the film. It's a flawed novel, but the account of a group of local men rising up in anger against an American and his English wife who give shelter to an escaped child killer in an isolated Dartmoor village cut off by snow has a great deal of tension. There's a Lord of the Flies feeling to the story. There is still quite a lot of violence, and the book might have benefited from more work, but it has a visceral power. I have no doubt that Williams was making valid and perfectly arguable points about our darker instincts, even if one wouldn't agree with all of his attitudes. I don't think it's a masterpiece, but it's definitely an improvement on the film. 

1 comment:

Liz Gilbey said...

Well said, Martin. There was a terrible thirst for films full of far too much unnecessary violence at the time, and Straw Dogs was some sort of height of the trend - or nadir, depending on your point of view.
I remember watching it at the time, and thinking it was terrible; overheated, poorly cast, poorly shot and a typical GEMSAV. Even though it received a lot of praise at the time. But it caught all the headlines and remains some sort of classic. Hugely unsubtle, as were so many films of the era, and not a film I would recommend.
The original author had an interesting body of work and was himself originally a specialist crime reporter, which I think showed in his varied body of fiction.
An interesting book to highlight.