The narrative core of this wonderful book is set in a police station. It is after the eponymous party and Martin is being interviewed, under caution, by the police. Clearly he has witnessed or been responsible for a ghastly event. As his interrogation continues, we repeatedly journey back to key moments along the road that have led to this point.
It soon becomes clear that Martin has ‘done a Tom Ripley’: he has skilfully burrowed his way into Ben’s life and family. And the process has not been without major personal sacrifice. When the two men are at Cambridge together, Martin is willing to lie for his friend; he takes direct responsibility for a terrible crime that is entirely Ben’s fault.
The parallel themes running through Elizabeth Day’s latest novel (she won the Betty Trask Award for a first novel by authors under 35 with her debut Scissors, Paper, Stone) make it a gripping, compelling read. Unrequited gay male love. Betrayal. Corruption. Privilege. Hypocrisy. Deceit. Violence.
It’s all there, and Day’s beautifully crafted writing makes it all the more eerily believable. It is also, we should say, very funny in parts – darkly witty and often challenging. Perhaps Day’s earlier incarnation as a broadsheet journalist (she decided on the career after waking up one day when she was just seven years old and realising she wanted to be a writer) was an ideal apprenticeship for becoming a novelist.
Well, it worked for Dickens.
I’ll tell you who this book will remind you of after just the fi rst few chapters: Tom Ripley. As in The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. Someone else, too: Charles Ryder, in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Why? Because just like Ripley and Ryder, the central character in The Party, Martin Gilmour, is the classic outsider, desperate to worm his way inside a world he hungers for, envies, and is fascinated by. Unhealthily so.
Martin’s father died when his mother was pregnant. The lack of a patrician figure has left him psychologically stunted. To compensate for his arrested emotional development, he becomes something of a poseur, even writing a pretentious book – a bestselling book, as it happens – titled Art: Who Gives a F*ck?
Martin, fearsomely bright, wins a scholarship to a top public school (not the best place for an emotionally blocked young man) where he quickly falls in love – a strange, obsessive love – with Ben Fitzmaurice. If Martin Gilmour is Charles Ryder, Ben Fitzmaurice is Sebastian Flyte: aristocratic, charming, poised, wealthy and self-confident to the centre of his being. In other words, he is compellingly fascinating – especially to someone temperamentally needy and greedy like Martin.
So the stage is set, and we fl ip backwards and forwards from past to present as Day’s dark, haunting story unfolds. Something unpleasant has occurred at Ben’s lavish fortieth birthday party. Tout le monde is there: celebrities, politicians, aristos; a wonderfully drawn cast of larger-than-life characters. The party is deservedly one of the highlights of this book – along with Martin’s police interview afterwards.
Read an Extract from The Party by Elizabeth Day
the interview room is small and square. A table, three plastic chairs, a high frosted window, the glass grimy with dust, strip lighting; our faces cast in dingy yellow shadow.
Two cups of tea: one for the female police officer, one for me. White with two sugars. Too much milk, but I’m not in a position to complain. The rim of my cup is patterned with indentations where, a few minutes previously, I bit into the polystyrene.
The walls are off -white. They remind me of the squash courts at the RAC on Pall Mall where, just a few days ago, I demolished an opponent who was several positions ahead of me in the club rankings. He was a banker. Florid face. Baggy shorts. Surprisingly lean thigh muscles. I dispatched him fairly swiftly: serve, slice, smash. The rubber thwack of the ball as it pinged into concrete, a dark green full stop at the end of each rally. Grunting. Swearing. Eventual defeat. Aggression contained within four walls.
The police station has a similar feel: a sort of bristling masculinity even though only one of the two officers interviewing me is male. The woman has clearly been designated ‘good cop’. It was she who offered me the tea, said it would be beneficial. She also suggested two sugars.
‘You know,’ she added, meeting my gaze, ‘after the shock.’
That was before I met Ben, of course. Before he saved me from myself. We’ve been saving each other ever since.
It’s true, I hadn’t expected the police to turn up on my doorstep this morning. It’s only the second time in my thirty-nine years that I have found myself interviewed by the authorities. On both occasions, it has been because of Ben. Which is odd, really, given that he’s my best friend. You’d expect best friends to take better care of each other.
The female police officer is short with rounded shoulders and a pleasant, freckled face. Her hair has been dyed that indeterminate colour inexplicably beloved of middle-aged women, which is neither brown nor blonde but somewhere in between. A kind of beige. Brittle at the ends.
Her colleague is tall. One of those men whose height is his defining feature. He stooped when he walked through the door, holding a sheaf of papers in hands the colour of supermarket ham. Grey suit with a white mark on the lapel. Toothpaste, perhaps. Or the left-behind smear of a baby’s breakfast. He is, I’d guess, in his early thirties.
The two of them sit across the table from me, backs to the door. The chairs have moulded seats with letterbox apertures in the back. We used to stack these chairs for school assemblies and end-of-term concerts at Burtonbury. A lifetime ago, and yet no time at all. Sometimes it seems as close as the next minute. Pencil shavings and plimsoll rubber, the scuff ed mark of a trainer against the classroom skirting board. Dormitories with sagging beds. The creak of a spring as a boy shifted in his sleep. That constant feeling of unease. That was before I met Ben, of course. Before he saved me from myself. We’ve been saving each other ever since.
On the table, to one side, is a large tape-recording machine. Too big, really. I find myself wondering why it has to be so big. Or why, indeed, the police still insist on using cassette tapes in this digitised era of sound-clouds and podcasts and iTunes.
I’ve declined a lawyer. Partly because I don’t want to fork out the necessary funds for a good one and I know, given the circumstances, Ben won’t pay and I refuse to get stuck with some snivel-nosed legal aid type who can’t distinguish his arse from his elbow. I don’t think Lucy’s parents will stump up either. After everything that’s happened, I suspect my in-laws might also be disinclined to help.
‘Right then,’ says the woman, hands clasped in front of her. Short nails, varnished with clear polish. A tiny ink stain on the fleshy part between thumb and index finger. ‘Shall we get started?’
‘By all means.’
Beige Hair presses a button on the giant recording machine. There is a long, loud bleep.
‘This interview is being tape-recorded at Tipworth Police Station, Eden Street, Tipworth. The date is 26 May 2015. The time is 2.20 p.m. I am Detective Constable Nicky Bridge.’
She glances at her colleague, who then identifies himself for the tape.
‘So, Martin,’ Beige Hair says. ‘Let’s begin at the beginning. Talk us through the events of the evening of 2 May. The party.
‘I am Detective Constable Kevin McPherson.’
‘Mr Gilmour,’ she says, looking at me, ‘would you introduce yourself with your full name and date of birth please?’
‘Martin Gilmour, 3 June 1975.’
‘Is it OK to call you Martin?’
She clears her throat. ‘You’ve been offered the services of a duty lawyer and declined – is that right, Martin?’
‘For the tape, please.’
There is a pause. Grey Suit shuffles his papers. His head is lowered. He does not look at me. I find this curiously disconcerting, the notion of not being worth his attention.
‘So, Martin,’ Beige Hair says. ‘Let’s begin at the beginning. Talk us through the events of the evening of 2 May. The party. You arrived before the other guests, is that right?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, we did.’
And then I start to tell them.
It begins with a door that wouldn’t open at the Tipworth Premier Inn.
Book Club Questions for The Party
1.How can we tell Martin is an unreliable narrator?
2. How did your sympathies for Martin and Lucy, Ben and Serena, shift throughout the course of the novel? Do you think there is any such thing as an ‘unlikeable’ character or did their fl aws make them more human?
3.To what extent did the narrative structure (where the bulk of the plot takes place over the course of one evening with fl ashbacks to the past) heighten the tension?
4. Is Martin right that other people’s money has ‘a narcotic quality’? Does being part of a wealthy elite change the way the Fitzmaurices behave to others not in their circle? What do you think this says about how class operates in modern Britain?