The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams

Published as Straw Dogs by Bloomsbury Film Classics, 2003, 157 p. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

I have not seen the film into which this was made and which provides the title for this reprint of the original text of Williams’s novel. The subject matter did not attract me. It still doesn’t. I only read this for completeness, because it’s on that 100 best list.

 Straw Dogs cover

In the run-up to Christmas a snow storm cuts off the village of Dando Manchorum in the English West Country. At a do in the village a young girl, Janice Hedden, goes missing. Search parties are organised. George Magruder, a US citizen, decides to take his English wife Louise and daughter Karen back home to Trencher’s Farm for safety before returning to the search. In the meantime Henry Niles, convicted child molester and murderer, has been thrown out of the van in which he was being transported from a hospital procedure back to the local prison for the criminally disturbed and is wandering the roads. Magruder’s car hits him and the family takes him back to the farmhouse till a doctor can come out to see him. When George finds out who Niles actually is he phones the police but due to the snow drifts they won’t be able to get there for hours.

Several of the locals, especially Tom Hedden, the missing girl’s father, convinced Niles must have abducted her, hear the news Niles is at the farm and they decide to take justice into their own hands. The siege of the title is their attempts to get in and those of George and, less so, Louise, to resist them. The beseigers are partly inspired by the tale of Soldier’s Field when some of their ancestors collectively killed the rapist and murderer of a young local girl but as none would talk weren’t subsequently prosecuted.

Niles himself, portrayed here as a bewildered, inadequate soul and of course totally innocent of abducting or killing Janice Hedden (though not the crimes for which he was incarcerated,) plays an off-stage part for most of the novel, locked in the Magruder’s bathroom before being stuffed into the loft.

The relationship between George and Louise is gone into in some detail but in the end reduces to the kind of sexual politics reflective of the decade in which The Siege of Trencher’s Farm was written (the 1960s.)

There isn’t really much insight into the human condition in these pages. The locals are depicted as very insular (which may be true to life) but the besiegers are more or less unthinking yokels – or else disturbed. I wouldn’t recommend the book to anyone unless they like descriptions of violence. It’s yet another crime book on that 100 best list. Presumably it’s only on there due to its – or the film’s – notoriety. It certainly hasn’t much by way of literary merit.

Pedant’s corner:- “worked as a mechanic as the Compton Wakley garage” (mechanic at the Compton Wakley garage,) hung (several instances; hanged,) Niles’ (Niles’s,) “‘he won’t say nothin’. all right.’ “ (comma after ‘nothin’’ rather than a full stop.)

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