THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER’S FARM (1969) by Gordon M. Williams

Williamss-Trenchers-Farm-mayflowerA worm-that-turned story of revenge in a remote English community, this harrowing snow-bound thriller has been filmed twice as Straw Dogs - and greatly altered, much to novelist Gordon Williams’ displeasure. The frustration felt by the author is easy to understand given just how much the movie has eclipsed the book in popular memory – but how do they compare?

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; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog – you should head over there right away.

“In the same year that Man first flew to the Moon and the last American soldier left Vietnam there were still corners of England where lived men and women who had never travelled more than fifteen miles from their own homes”

It’s the tail end of the Swinging Sixties, but for centuries little has changed in Dando Monachorum, a remote rural enclave in southern England. American academic George Magruder has come here – together with his wife Louise and their eight-year-old daughter Karen – to find some peace and quiet while he tries to finish his book on the (fictitious) 18th century British diarist Branksheer. It soon becomes clear that he’s in the wrong place as the picturesque retreat soon turns into a hotbed of animosity and violence. The locals resent the outsiders (though at least Louise is British), knowing that they could never afford the rent on Trencher’s Farm even though George thinks it’s actually pretty cheap. Jealousy and resentment also dominates the Magruder’s home life – right from the very beginning Louise seems to spend all her time criticising her husband, blaming him for everything  not least just for Williams-Trenchers-farm-hbbeing an American. He adopts a somewhat distant air to rise above the constant baiting, which makes him pretty hard to like. It soon emerges that George and Louise’s marriage has been on the rocks for quite a while and the she had an affair with an Irish poet and fantasises about running away with him. Not yet in their forties, the couple seem prematurely middle-aged after less than ten years of marriage, endlessly bickering and sniping. She has come to resent his professorial demeanor and straight-laced ways and their sex life seems to be pretty much over (he seems to be the culprit here – we have no idea if his impotence is the result of a physiological or psychological dysfunction).

“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Can’t you behave like a normal father and forget that damned book of yours!”

Louise had picked the spot for their English retreat but has come to resent the fact that he didn’t take charge of this relocation. A sinister touch is also introduced early when a cat is found strangled on their front door (George squeals and refuses to touch it, leaving Louise to do the dirty work). Bit by bit we come to see this is story of frustration and also of masculinity in crisis. The dirt-poor farmers and labourers are stuck in entrenched roles that they can’t break out of (conformity is the only way to survive), with all their frustration eventually unloading violently on anyone who steps out of line. Things are brought to a head the night of the Christmas Party organised by the local parish. Snow has ben falling hard and an ambulance carrying a prisoner from a mental home has crashed. Ten years earlier Harry Niles was convicted of the murder of several children but found to have the mental age of an eight-year-old so was locked away in an asylum. Now he is alone and wandering about in the storm. This coincides with a disappearance of a mentally handicapped young girl from the party – are the two events connected? George drives there to pick up his wife and daughter and take them home, which as usual leads to a torrent of Willimas=Straw-Dogs-mayflowerabuse from Louise. During this George hits someone with his car – they take the man to their home and realise that it is Niles. When some of the locals at the pub hear that Niles is at the farm they head over demand he be handed over. George, a conscientious Liberal who also has something to prove in defending his own home, insists that they wait for the police and a doctor. The men initially turn back, but then the missing girl’s father turns up with a shotgun. The local doctor tries to stop them and is battered for his trouble – when another tries to take the gun, he is killed. It is now, at the halfway mark, that the eponymous siege begins and the book starts to pay off the various references to the Western genre and American frontier life that have been regularly popping up until now.

“This wasn’t how those wives behaved, those pioneering women. They stood by their men, through thick and thin”

Louise’s instant reaction, after once again finding the time to scold her husband, something she knows she is now doing unthinkingly and unreasonably but which she seems powerless to stop, is just to hand Niles over. George rightly refuses, knowing that Niles will be killed and that on this occasion, given the circumstances, the man can’t be guilty as he was too far away from the disappearance of the girl. With the danger level mounting, Louise eventually gives George an ultimatum – either they let the men have Niles or she will leave him. For a second he considers giving the man up, but it quickly becomes clear that after the shooting, the men now have nothing to lose and will kill the Magruders to keep their secret, patterning the crime after a similar event Williams-Siege-new-movie-tie0inhalf a century earlier at the so-called ‘Soldier’s Field’. On that occasion, after the death fo achild, the apparent attacker was murdered and covered up. With the farm cut off by bad weather, the group of five men start the ‘home invasion’ in earnest. At this point there is a third of the book to go and Williams has set up a tortured family dynamic, created a dark and forbidding environment that is literally and figurative in-bred as events repeat themselves in a seemingly inevitable cycle, and set up many suspenseful questions: has Niles really hurt the missing girl, and if not, where is she? Will the Magruders give him up? Will they be able to fend off the drunken (and armed) locals? And will the Magruder’s marriage survive?

“Don’t be silly. This isn’t a bloody film!”

Williams is skilled writer and the various skirmishes inside and outside the farm are very well handled, as are the equally bruising battles between the warring couple, which are presented with blistering success even if the attempts at psychology are clearly too rudimentary and unsophisticated to really convince. Equally, while it is clear that the author has some social comments to make (and being a Scotsman brings a useful, semi-outsider’s perspective), at heart this never feels like a substantial enough work to warrant really serious consideration as anything other than a proficient potboiler. But then, it was apparently written in only three weeks – and the extended action climax was recognised as potential film fodder very quickly. In less than a year in fact it was being filmed by Hollywood as Straw Dogs, and I’ll be reviewing that notorious film here very shortly.

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

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23 Responses to THE SIEGE OF TRENCHER’S FARM (1969) by Gordon M. Williams

  1. Sergio – I didn’t know how quickly this was written – wow! Interesting that there would be that thread of social commentary woven into a story like that. Still it sounds like it’s got plenty of tension and the setting sounds nicely done. I’ll be very interested in what you thought of Straw Dogs

    • Thanks Margot – Williams was at the height of his citical glory dars at that point though he is probably best-known today for his Hazell book. Historically it is fascinating, and the story is exciting but the soxial and sexual politics are more than a bit dubious frankly … I’ll be reviewing the movie on Tuesday and it’s turned into one of the toughest reviews I’ve yet had to think about and I’m not sure I’ve got it right, not at all – it’s such a difficult proposition!

  2. Keen Reader says:

    I tried to read this a couple of months’ ago but gave up after about fifty pages (just after Harry Niles goes walkabout) as it was taking too long to get going. Williams was too obviously “getting all his ducks in a row’ for the big crash-bang-wallop climax.

    • I understand what you mean and yes, it’s a all a big set up for the siege, which then takes up the entirety of the second half of the book. It’s worth a read and I’m glad I did, especially as I admire the film greatly and it was great to compare them (movie review next week).

  3. Colin says:

    Fascinating stuff for me as I’ve never read the book. Like Margo, I’m impressed to learn this was written in such a short space of time. Looking forward to your take on Peckinpah’s movie.

    • Thanks Colin – I’m reviewing the movie (the 71 version) on Tuesday – not too spoilerish to say that I think the Peckinpah comes out ahead …

      • Colin says:

        I’m not going to comment too much here, partly because I haven’t read the book but also because I’m curious to hear your take on the film.
        I will say though that your analysis of the novel makes it sound like a good, solid piece of pulp literature.

        • Thanks Colin – it’s worth a read but I prefer, in the thriller genre, William’s efforts in the Hazell series as ‘PB Yuill’, which he co-wrote with Terry Venables.

  4. I saw STRAW DOGS when it first came out. Interesting review of Williams’ work.

    • Thanks George – I wanted to give it a fair shake as no one seems to read it much in preference to the film though a tie-in edition was released when that unimpressive remake came out a couple of years ago …

  5. John says:

    I’m not a fan of the “wimp becomes a man through violence” kind of story. But I like your insights into Western genre motifs used in the action sequences. And wasn’t THE BORNLESS KEEPER also tossed off in a few days? Talk about a potboiler! I know you’ve mentioned Williams’ other work writing as “P. B. Yuill” is much better and I’m still looking for any of those Hazell books. Very hard to find over here.

    • Yes, the worst kind of macho rubbish, isn’t it? I think Williams is to an extent having fun with this idea rather than buying into it … However, Bornless Keeper is the exception that proves the Yuill rule shall we say … I should have a spare of the first Hazell novel – once I get my boxes unpacked I shall dig it out chum.

      • John says:

        Thanks so much, Sergio! Much obliged. Now I can cross that one off my list to make room for some other book I’ll have a heckuva time trying to find.

        • You know, given your batting average in this regard, I think you do much better than the rest of us so only glad to contribute to you great endeavour! Ciao – S.

  6. TracyK says:

    Interesting book and interesting review. Not sure I want to read it. I did not know Straw Dogs was based on a book. I saw Straw Dogs when it came out (I think) and it was way too violent and tense for me, but that was then and now… I don’t know whether it would still seem so bad. I am eager to see your review of the film.

    • Thanks TracyK – the movie remains very disturbing to me and I say that as someone who admittedly has a pretty low threshold for violence (not much of a modern horror fan – I prefer smoke and shadows). Hope you enjoy the movie review next week.

  7. Jeff Flugel says:

    Intriguing write-up of the source novel to one of the more infamous films out there, Sergio! I think Peckinpah’s movie is some kind of masterpiece, though not one I’m keen to watch very often. Interesting to hear how the novel differs from the film. I’m not sure I’d be up for all the domestic bickering going on in the novel, but might give this one a read someday to see how Williams handles the climactic action. Looking forward to your take on the ’71 film!

    • Thanks very much Jeff – like you, I admire the Peckinpah film enormously and when I saw it on a cinema re-release here in the UK many years it ago it really bowled me over – but it’s not exactly a film I would choose to re-watch frequently!

  8. Sergio, an absolute blinder! Your review has made me like everything about this book, in particular the characterisation of George and Louise (as being distinct from the plot if one likes) and the setting that in some ways resembles life in the wild west. The cover is an appetiser. I didn’t know about STRAW DOGS and look forward to reading your review before I see the film.

    • Thanks Prashant, glad it ‘hit the spot’, so to speak, especially as I think you’re the only one who has any nice things to say about the book!! Movie review will be up tomorrow …

  9. Pingback: Straw Dogs (1971) | Tipping My Fedora

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

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