Like Dick Cheney and Céline Dion, the noble art of satire boasts the indignity of having been declared dead while very much still breathing: Tom Lehrer announced its demise in 1973, when Henry Kissinger received the Nobel Peace Prize. Lehrer’s point, namely that life’s sudden, extravagant ludicrousness left fiction with no role, maybe lacked historical context: the sense that things have gone mad pervades almost every age, yet writers continue to respond. It is this sense – not to mention the issue of historical context – that presides over Mark Lawson’s new novel, The Allegations.
The plot is driven by two of the stranger features of recent British life. The first is the curious relinquishing of the presumption of innocence that took place a couple of years ago, when the police began noisily and publicly to investigate well-known figures, both alive and dead, on suspicion of sex crimes, and to refer to the complainants (rebranded as ‘victims’) as ‘credible and true’, even though neither the truth nor the credibility of their claims had been tested. That notorious phrase was used as the title of a memoir by Harvey Proctor, one of the people caught in the maw of Operation Midland, an inquiry that continued for sixteen months until it was closed on the fairly reasonable ground that there was no evidence supporting any of the complaints.
In The Allegations, Ned Marriott, a television historian, now sixty but still virile, is arrested one morning for a historical (or ‘historic’, as it is misnamed, much to Ned’s dismay) sex crime: in this case a rape alleged by Billy,