The Guilty Party by Mel McGrath: a potent portrait of what happens when trust is catastrophically broken - book review -

The Guilty Party
The Guilty Party

If there’s one thing Mel McGrath likes, it’s to mess with your mind…

The Guilty Party

Mel McGrath

By Pam Norfolk

If there’s one thing Mel McGrath likes, it’s to mess with your mind…

With the success of acclaimed Edie Kiglatuk Arctic mysteries – written as MJ McGrath – already under her belt, two years ago this astute and clever author turned her considerable talents to psychological thrillers and the result was the compulsive best-seller Give Me the Child.

Now she’s back to confuse, confound and entertain her readers with a gripping tale of four former university friends who witness a woman being raped in a London alleyway one night, and decide to do nothing to help her. Next day her body is found floating in the Thames.

Why this group of two men and two women chose not to intervene lies at the heart of a dark and disturbing exploration of toxic friendships, contemporary sexual mores, and the competing interpretations of innocence and guilt.

And be warned, this is an intense and unsettling journey into the lives of some extraordinarily complex, corrosive characters… a rollercoaster ride full of moral ambiguities and shocking secrets that will leave readers questioning just what they would have done in the same circumstances.

All now in their thirties, with wives, partners, husbands and families, Cassie, Anna, Bo and Dex have been close friends since their university days and they continue to meet up every year to share each other’s birthdays.

This hot August night, they have been celebrating Cassie’s birthday by drinking and partying at a music festival in Wapping and as they make their way from the venue, they see a man and woman under a street light and instantly recognise that ‘something wayward is happening in that alley and its dark presence is heading out to meet us.’

They are no longer casual observers… they ‘have just become witnesses.’ Each with reasons of their own, they decide to do nothing but later, a body washes up on the banks of the Thames and the group realises that ignoring the woman has left blood on their hands.

Over a month later, the four friends meet up again for another birthday celebration, this time at a cottage in the heart of the Dorset countryside but everything has started to fall apart. From a friendship whose bonds ‘had always carried the seeds of rottenness and destruction,’ we start to learn the dark secrets behind why they refused to step in, why none of them wanted to be noticed that night, and who was really responsible.

But is it possible that the victim was not really a stranger at all?

McGrath is an acutely observant writer and here she delivers a haunting but riveting experience as we are taken uncomfortably and claustrophobically close to a friendship that has become increasingly and dangerously poisoned by a series of events, betrayals and sexual encounters.

As the dark secrets that have festered between Cassie, Anna, Bo and Dex are slowly revealed, and the tensions that have simmered beneath the surface of their relationships rise inexorably to the surface, the action explodes into a spine-tingling and gobsmacking final act.

This is an author who shows her readers – powerfully and incisively – what it means to lose your moral compass, to put friendship before responsibility, and to allow peer pressure to warp your sense of what is right and wrong.

Compelling, insightful and clever, The Guilty Party is an impressive tour de force, a potent portrait of what happens when trust is catastrophically broken, and a blistering read from start to finish.

(HQ, paperback, £8.99)