I was genuinely surprised this book didn't have a wider audience, partly because of its subject matter, and partly because of the resurgence in the British public's antipathy and cynicism towards the political establishment in the aftermath of the financial crash and expenses scandal of 2009. If this book achieves anything in that regard, it might be in offering the rather meagre consolation that nothing changes, where political skulduggery and hypocrisy are concerned.
This particular episode, concerning the alleged love affair between Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott and its alleged ramifications, is a contentious one, given that, in a jury trial that effectively acted as a referendum on Scott's version of events, Thorpe was acquitted and Scott discredited in the eyes of the public. It's nevertheless worth noting that, while Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose effectively crucify Thorpe and treat Scott's record as gospel in this account, the pair of them have never been hauled before the libel courts, which may speak for itself more loudly and convincingly than anything else for most spectators. That aside, Freeman and Penrose's book is an excellent one in most respects, chronicling the parallel lives of Jeremy Thorpe (aspiring politician and one-time Liberal Party leader) and Norman Scott (stable lad and male model), from the fateful evening in 1963 when the pair of them supposedly embarked on an affair (homosexual relations being illegal in 1963) until Thorpe's trial for conspiracy to murder in 1979.
The narrative is fascinating for a number of reasons, the chief reason being that the sequence of events and the cast of characters that bring them about are so variously unbelievable and confounding and farcical that you do stop and wonder from time to time whether the authors are enjoying some kind of elaborate joke at the expense of their readers. In broad strokes, Thorpe - in connivance with a failed airline pilot turned paid assassin, a bumbling MP and chronic liar, a gang of bent businessmen and a hoodwinked Caribbean millionaire, among others - decides to have Scott murdered after the young man begins spreading rumours about Thorpe's sexuality to anybody who'll listen. Andrew Newton, the failed pilot turned assassin, gets Scott alone in the middle of nowhere and shoots Scott's dog Rinka, before turning the gun on his intended target. Unfortunately, the gun jams, and Newton goes to prison for it, having previously sworn himself to secrecy. Halfway through his jail term, however, Newton changes his mind, and blows the lid on the wider conspiracy. The case comes to trial before a jury and, aided by one of the most ridiculously one-sided trials in criminal history, Thorpe gets away with attempted murder - so the authors would have us believe.
The story can be exhausting to the reader. This is partly because of the trajectory of Thorpe's political career and its historical backdrop (this includes oil shocks, strikes and four general elections, so a bit of political interest does help a good deal), all of which has to be explained in order to demonstrate how Thorpe's star could have risen and plunged in the fashion it did. The same can be said for Norman Scott's drifting and self-pitying existence, floating between friends and occupations in Devon and Dublin and London and other places. Nonetheless, if you just concentrate upon the story and hold your nerve, it pays off in the end as a reading experience. The botched murder proves to be a key starting point to the real action, where retired Prime Minister Harold Wilson confronts Barrie Penrose and a colleague with a story about Thorpe and South African security agents, and this is where it really gets interesting.
The book also exposes the humbug and double standards that seem to become a part of life once you're in the Westminster bubble for the long haul. Thorpe's sexuality, which shouldn't have been an issue for him in the first place were it not for the stuffy atmosphere of the time, was common knowledge among his colleagues and rivals in the House of Commons, who nevertheless chose to keep quiet about it out of political expediency. Thorpe is further depicted as a spiteful and vengeful lightweight who revives a failing Liberal Party at expense of principle and scruples of any sort, which might ring a few bells with readers in the present.
So, on several counts, this is an excellent book. It can be tiring, and it can expect perhaps just a bit much of its readers from time to time, but stick by it. As a portrait of unrestrained ambition and selfishness, and political power-tripping, this is unsurpassed.