26 September 2023


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Reviewed by Robert Goodman.

By Sarah Vaughan, Simon and Schuster.

Sarah Vaughan has become a household name recently, or at least the adaptation of one of her earlier books, Anatomy of a Scandal, has. That book (and series) follows the trial of a high profile British politician accused of rape and has some twists involving some historical connections between some of the characters, in particular the MP and the Prime Minister. So it feels like Vaughan is back on familiar territory with Reputation, a story that revolves around the murder trial of a British, female backbencher. But in Reputation, Vaughan seems to have a lot more on her mind than just a courtroom drama as the narrative deals with a range of hot button issues.

Reputation opens in media res, someone is dead and Emma hopes he died painfully. The narrative then cuts back a few months to an interview that Emma has done in which she hopes to raise the profile of her cause – protecting victims of revenge porn – but in which she also takes time to slag off her party leader. Emma is working closely on her campaign with a tabloid journalist called Mike who turns on her after the two have a one night stand, wanting to expose Emma’s family issues. Not long after that, Mike turns up dead at the bottom of the stairs in Emma’s house. Emma is caught lying about what happened to Mike and is put on trial for his murder.

The bulk of the book is the court case, although not always seen from Emma’s point of view, Emma’s daughter Flora and her new step-mother Caroline in particular are given key components of the narrative. And the courtroom drama aspect is handled in a very British way, with few of the over-the-top histrionics of some of Vaughan’s American counterparts. As a good example of this genre, the flow of the evidence is effectively used to tease out just how Emma has been lying and why but also to keep the reader guessing as to her guilt. Vaughan notes at the end that she was given some advice by the people involved in the Anatomy of a Scandal TV show, including David E Kelly (responsible for TV shows like The Practice, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), and it shows. This book feels ready made to transition to the screen.

But as noted, this book is more interesting for the issues that it tackles. This includes incessant haranguing and harassment on social media of politicians, particularly female ones, and the possibility of that escalating into real violence (Vaughan notes that this was written before the death of MP David Ames and British Parliament acknowledging the need to better protect its members). The minefield of technology, its insidious use in cyberbullying and catfishing, particularly for teens and trying to navigate issues related to the online world. And of course the overarching theme of reputation – how it is gained, how it is maintained and how the need to maintain it can be manipulated.

That is not to say that Reputation is a deep and meaningful novel. It is a page turning court room drama built around current issues. Tension is maintained by holding back key facts and Emma’s full recollection of events until late in the piece, but this is par for the course with this type of thriller. Now it is just a matter of sitting back and waiting for the adaptation to hit Netflix.

Over 800 more book reviews can be found on Pile by the Bed.

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