BRAINWASH (1979) by John Wainwright

Wainwright-Brainwash-BCA-MacmillanThis claustrophobic psychological whodunit was one of over 80 books by John William Wainwright (1921-1995), a crime writer from Leeds who despite his prolific output seems in danger of being forgotten  – at present in fact none of his books appear to be in print in the UK. Brainwash describes, in exacting detail, the attempt to gain a confession from a suspect in a case involving three particularly grisly murders. It is a powerful and well-designed story, one that in its depiction of policemen and their (sometimes brutal) methods has the tang of authenticity – which is not a surprise as Wainwright was a police officer in the West Riding Constabulary for twenty-two years before turning to full-time writing at the end of the 1960s.

I offer the following review as part of the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here. I also submit it as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme at her Pattinase blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“The room. We must start by describing the room because in effect the room was the stage upon which the whole drama was performed.”

Wainwright was a big fan of the 87th Precinct mysteries of Ed McBain and in the same vein sought to ring the changes in the British police procedural genre but without dispensing with a range of series characters who would be moved centre stage and then back again as required. This book was the first of five volumes to foreground Inspector Lyle, a hardened but intelligent veteran and provides a strong launching pad as he is one of only four main characters. The most prominent of the other three is prime suspect George Barker, a minor civil servant in local government, one of that army of small, grey, seemingly insignificant petit bourgeois so beloved of Simenon (who was a fan of Wainwright’s All on a Summer’s Day incidentally).

He was a timid mouse of a man, a man crushed into everlasting submission by … something.

Outwardly a paragon of respectability, small virtues and dull conformity, Barker is none the less a man with a guilty secret. He called the police after discovering the dead body of a young girl while out walking his neighbour’s dog, the latest in as series of three cases in which local girls have been sexually assaulted and then strangled. But the police feel he is holding something back – and what is more, Barker was never that far away from the scene of the other crimes either. The other two main characters are Bell, Lyle’s violent sergeant, and Barker’s chilly wife, Edwina, who has her own ideas about who the guilty party is.

“I tell you, Inspector. Were I capable of murder, she’s the one I’d kill”

The basic premise is highly theatrical – in essence what we have is a four hander made up of the suspect and his wife and two policemen, though hovering above these are the constant emotive reminders of three murdered girls, Lyle constantly bringing the victims back into the investigation. The novel charts the interrogation of the suspect over just a few hours, from 10.30 at night until about 8 hours later, a specificity of time and place also to be found in perhaps Wainwright’s best and best-known novel, the aforementioned All on a Summer’s Day.

Michel Serrault and Lino Ventura in ‘Garde à vue’ (1981).

The plot – the relentless police interrogation of a suspect – is not especially original of course and was used by Julian Symons to stark effect in his 1957 novel The Colour of Murder (see the excellent review at Past Offences) as well as by John Hopkins for his 1968 stage play ‘This Story of Yours’ (filmed as The Offence with Sean Connery in 1971 and reviewed by Ben Pearson here). And Ed McBain (of course) also used the formula, in his great 1975 novel, Blood Relatives.

The trick is to get the suspect to admit at least the possibility of his guilt. To con him. To carefully channel his answers until he is prepared to step aside from himself, make-believe that he is a third party and agree that, as this non-existent third party, he might be guilty.

Barker is brought in ostensibly to clear up a few loose ends relating to his previous statement about the discovery of the body and is thus not represented by a lawyer. Quite quickly though it becomes clear that Barker has gone from being a witness to being the object of the investigation – and yet he refuses counsel so we have to ask ourselves, why? Is it possible that he not only has something terrible to hide but does, in fact, want it to be uncovered? Bit by bit Lyle intends to break down Barker’s defences and get the all-important confession. His progress is interrupted by the arrival of Edwina, who it turns out has a pretty low opinion of her husband but is still furious that the police have not informed her that he is being questioned.

“No police station is ever a happy place”

As Lyle listens to her in another room, Bell decides that the progress is much too slow and assaults Barker, determined to beat a confession out of him. This is brutal but horribly plausible, as is the outcome when the assault is discovered: Bell is protected by his colleagues and Barker tricked into not pressing charges. Lyle is more frustrated by Bell’s interruption of his interrogation than appalled by the abuse of power – which of course is undoubtedly a plausible depiction. At regular intervals Wainwright takes us into the minds of the four protagonists, which initially feels a bit like padding (it’s still a short novel, under 200 pages) but is also useful because it turns out that he has devious reasons for doing this. Wainwright has some deep and dark secrets to be uncovered and also a very big and nasty twist in the tail.

“His early books are now almost period pieces, but the overall body of work is probably the substantial set of police procedurals in Britain” - Mike Ashley

If truth be told, given the limited nature of the premise, the book is probably a little bit repetitious, though again one could argue that this is probably fairly realistic in reflecting the to and fro of an intense one-on-one investigation. Wainwright is certainly very capable in combining a tricky plot, plausible characters and sordid details. His depiction of the marital breakdown of Barker and his wife is inevitably dated with its emphasis on her ‘withholding of marital favours’ and what impact this may have had on the accused – having said that, that this was a common point of view at the time is something I don’t doubt. I should also point out that the author, while mostly dodging strong language and any violence other than the one instance already described, is quite matter of fact in detailing what might motivate the killer and some of this material I definitely found queasy making, which was doubtless the point. Brainwash may not be Wainwright’s very best book but it probably has fair claim to be being his best-known given that it has been adapted several times: twice for the cinema, once for Under-Suspicion-movie-posterBBC radio and most recently as a stage adaptation in Florida – here’s a chronological summary:

  • BBC Radio adaptation for The Monday Play (9 February 1981) starring David Calder and Paul Webster
  • Garde à vue (1981) – French adaptation (review coming here soon)
  • Under Suspicion (2000) US remake starring Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman
  • Person of Interest (2012) stage adaptation by Bob Bowersox (click here for details)

I have not heard the radio version nor seen the stage production but am acquainted with the film adaptations at least. The first (and best) version, Garde à vue (1981), was made very shortly after the original publication and starred Lino Ventura, Michel Serrault and the luminous Romy Schneider, transposing the action to Normandy and I’ll be reviewing it here very shortly. The second, Under Suspicion (2000), was a glossy Hollywood remake based on both the earlier screenplay and the original book, and starred Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Monica Bellucci in the equivalent roles with the action relocated to Puerto Rico and was barely released in cinemas. It is much more easily available on DVD and is certainly well made and worth a look, if clearly inferior to the original.

Wainwright said of his own aspirations:

“Of necessity I take my work seriously, but I never take myself seriously. I am a teller of tales. Nothing more.”

I think he most definitely accomplishes this in Brainwash so if you can get a copy I gladly recommend it, though you may need a strong stomach. For a detailed and mostly reliable bibliography (perhaps not 100% reliable though as the Brainwash publication date for instance is out by 3 years but then, given the sheer bulk Wainwright’s output and lack of availability, the level of detail is still pretty darn impressive), visit Nico van Embden’s fine Crime & Mystery website here. I hope this review might inspire others to track down second-hand copies of Wainwright’s books, which can only be a good thing. A review of his magnum opus, All on a Summer’s Day (1981), is to follow soon.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in 2013 Book to Movie Challenge, 87th Precinct, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, Georges Simenon, John Wainwright, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to BRAINWASH (1979) by John Wainwright

  1. Colin says:

    Fascinating. I’ve never read the book, nor have I seen the original movie adaptation. However, I do recall seeing Under Suspicion in the cinema when it was released. I haven’t seen the movie since, although I’m pretty sure I have a DVD lying around somewhere if only I could lay my hands on it! I seem to remember it being quite a claustrophobic affair and quite stylishly shot. I really need to do something with this mess I laughingly refer to as a home so I can actually find things when I want them.

    • Thanks for the comments Colin, very much appreciated. For me audiovisual confusion is no longer a state of mind, it is a modus vivendi! The Under Suspicion remake is pretty close to the French film, which is a very faithful version of the book in terms of plot and character, though the least fo the three. Wainwright was prolific but only ever modestly successful (hence the need to produce as many as 4 novels a year in his heyday) and I don’t think many people will recognise the name. I hope I did him justice as he definitely earned my respect and will review another one of his fairly soon – if truth be told I’m not expecting a lot of talkback on this review because the title makes it sound like SF, the author has fallen off the radar and the police procedural has lost so much currency though so many TV shows like the Law & Order titles (many of which I am a huge fan of I hasten to add) – but we go on, fighting the good fight – or something …

      • Colin says:

        I never heard of the guy – although I should have seeing as I watched an adaptation of his work!
        The book does sound interesting and I was already thinking of The Offence before you mentioned it.
        It’s odd how many prolific authors have slipped off the cultural radar though, isn’t it?

        • Mike Ashley went out of his way to praise Wainwright for what he considers a major achievement in the procedural genre but his books were a lot more varied than say the McBain series (not least becasue the dipped in and out of the series frequently) so was less able (or even willing) to build a brand for the series – the imoression I have, on limited acquanitance I might add, is that his books are also much tougher and the characters much less romantic (for which also read likeable), so not to everyone’s tastes. It is scary how authors fall out of popularity – I was stunned to realise that Ellery Queen, a giant of a figure, is basically unknown to new readers today. Fashions do change but he was hugely popular for the best part of half a century!

          • Colin says:

            I actually find that observation about Ellery Queen quite depressing. The books have been out of print for a while so it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Yet, for all that, we’re talking about one of the major players in the development of the detective story, not some peripheral figure, so the notion that he’s all but forgotten is a little shocking. To me, that’s akin to hearing that no-one recognizes the names of Conan Doyle or Christie now!

          • The Queen books are finally being reprinted, albeit as ebooks, from the Mysterious Press, who put together a very brief promo to explain the Queen legacy – at least they’re trying I guess. I suspect that it’s also the TV and film adaptations of Doyle and Christie that have helped keep those authors more alive in the public conciousness – Queen, like Carr, could never translate as well due to their density of plotting I would suspect …

  2. I read some John Wainwright back in the Seventies and early Eighties, but not this book. I found him to be a competent writer but not a compelling one. I was reading a lot of John D. MacDonald in this years and much preferred JDM.

    • Thanks George – not really read much JDM so can’t comment there but given the steady stream of Wainwright’s books, the generally plain style and the fairly straightforward plotting, I can certainly see what you’re getting at. I think some, like this one, really do stand out, but perhaps he was just too prolific for his own good (artistically, anyway).

  3. neer says:

    Police Procedurals are really not my cup of tea but this with its psychological drama, and that twist in the end that you mention seems very fascinating. Thanks for an interesting review and for bringing another forgotten author to light. Waiting eagerly for your review of All on a Summer’s Day.

    • Thank you very much Neer for the kind words – I’m a big fan of Ed McBain (of course) so in a way I was always going to be a member of the target audience but I do think this is a superior example of the genre.

  4. TracyK says:

    How do you keep coming up with mystery authors that I have never heard of? I do like police procedurals. These sound maybe grittier than I care for, but they do sound interesting, and worth trying. I will put him on my list.

    • Thanks TracyK – the sad part is that Wainwright was pretty well known in the 60s and 70s – in fact HRF Keating included All on a Summer’s Day (1981) among his top 100 best mystery novels! review of that one coming shortly! Thanks again for the comments, very gratefully received!

      • TracyK says:

        I was just going to re-read (after many years) The Hundred Best Books by Keating, but other reading keeps getting in the way. I will check that entry out. And John Wainwright is also listed in 1001 Midnights (An Urge for Justice, 1981).

  5. Todd Mason says:

    I suspect (and you might guess as well) that I’ll like Wainwright much better than “McBain” just for those contrasted qualities above…and I’ve experienced, first-hand (trivially, I’m happy to report) and third hand (including the experience of friends assaulted by police because they felt like it) the arrogance and tunnel-vision of individual officers over here, and the attempts of their fellows to cover for them…in Philadelphia recently, a woman walking away from a Puerto Rican Day party was mistaken by a cop for someone who threw a plastic beverage bottle at him, so he shoved her to the ground, struck her several times and arrested her. Unfortunately for him, he was on camera doing so, and so was eventually forced to apologize as well as received disciplinary penalties…much to the outrage of his union rep, who kept up a steady stream of statements to the press along the lines of, Is this what the Philadelphia Police Department has come to, an organization that has to go around *apologizing* for itself? I can see the tears welling up your eyes as I write. Ah, for the good old days, when particularly the white officers could go hang out around the black-oriented nightclubs in Philly and bust heads with impunity…part of the reason that jazz clubs didn’t have much of a legacy in the city in the ’50s and ’60s, among other things…

    • Well I completely agree Todd, there is a world of difference, though Hunter could be much more realistic if he wanted to. As a corrective to my continuing McBain ‘fixes’ I’ve been re-reading Ellison’s Memos from Purgatory (post coming shortly) and the description of the New York ‘Tombs’ still freezes the blood. I hadn’t heard about this latest incident ‘incident’ in Philly – but hey, isn’t this why you guys are all supposed to have AK 47s permanently strapped to your forearms? As always Todd, thanks very much for stopping by – made my day a hell of a lot brighter.

  6. Sergio, I’m assuming the gruelling police interrogation of the suspect is in dialogue form which, I think, would make the scenario that much more interesting for the reader. Novels about police procedulars make me a trifle uncomfortable given the grisly affairs that go on inside police stations, with police badgering, beatings, and custodial deaths often being the rule rather the exception. Having said that, I have never read anything by John Wainwright and I look forward to reading your review of ALL ON A SUMMER’S DAY before I go looking for his books.

    • Hi Prashant – yes, the book is nearly all dialogue – apart from a few short chapters that are separated out to give the four main characters’ inner thoughts ‘voice’ (and which are presented in italics in fact), this is pretty much all dialogue. As such it is a very quick read, under 200 pages, and mostly dialogue, which I think (along with the main plot and decent twist) is probably what made it so sttractive for adaptation to film, radio and the stage. It’s not the easiest book to get hold of but it is available on Amazon etc. and I think worth getting. I would love to read an equivalent from India – are there police procedurals published in English that you could recommend? Cheers mate.

      • Sergio, I am guilty of not reading much Indian fiction save for books by the more famous like Salman Rushdie, R.K. Narayan, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, and Amitav Ghosh. I am sure there must be an India equivalent of this book, perhaps in a milder form. I’d have to revisit some of H.R.F. Keating’s novels that explore the mysteries of Inspector Ghote of the Bombay crime branch that might at least give us a clue about police precedurals in this country. It’s definitely worth looking into, thanks Sergio!

        • Thank you Prashant, it would be great to find out more – I have read a few of Keating’s highly entertaining books but have no idea how accurate they might have been.

          • neer says:

            Sergio, I have not read the book myself but Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games which features a policeman Sartaj Singh as its protagonist has received rave reviews.

            There is also an Inspector Singh series by Shamini Flint that seems to be very popular.

            Hope this helps.

          • That’s great Neer, thanks very much – I’ll look to see what the availability is like here – cheers!

  7. DoingDewey says:

    This sounds like a potentially dark and very intense story! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the different film versions; I’m looking forward to hearing more about the original movie :)

    • Thanks very much Katie – I was going to do the movie review at the same time but the post was so long as it was I thought I’d better separate it out! It’ll be up in a week. Really enjoying the Challenge – thanks for organising it.

  8. Pingback: Garde à vue (1981) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film | Tipping My Fedora

  9. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed this post – I’m off over to abebooks to buy myself a copy of Brainwash! Anyone loved by the mighty Simenon has to be worth a read! Thanks for this!

  10. robert says:

    I saw the french movie (being french) many many years ago, and it was a superb acting demonstration by the four actors involved (all very famous in France). I also saw the american version recently, and I was less enthusiastic. I couldn’t find the same impression of “huis clos”. It was also a bit funny to hear M. Freeman and G. hackman talking about e-mail :)
    I haven’t read the book but in the french film, the cop and the suspect don’t know each other, are not friends. Maybe this helped or not.
    One last thing, sometimes a very small part from an actor or an actress can make a difference, and although M. Bellucci is certainly a gorgeous woman, her actress skills at that time were no match for R. Schneider (playing her part in the french version), herself a beautiful woman and a really excellent actress that we cherished in France.

    • Thanks for all the feedback Robert – the detective and suspect don;t know each other in the book either. And I quite agree, Schneider is the superior actress (and star presence too).

  11. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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