On Dartmoor there is a surprising place to find – a cashless, barter-led cooperative of a village, where nobody spends anything, but everyone works and puts the fruits of their labours out there for free. It’s not all happy-go-lucky, however, as Duncan Peck, our way to explore this place, comes to discover. The village is overlooked by a huge free-standing stump of a wall, and beyond the parish notices about what is available, and what events are when, it often gets filled in with potentially libellous, gossippy accusations. In this village, where small transgressions result in the guilty being forced to walk around all day with heavy furniture strapped to their back so they can barely sit, and where the stocks are always ready for use, enough malevolent comment on the wall can force you to flee, out to risk your luck in the boggy wasteland beyond the village. The retribution against anyone criminal enough to escape and be caught is great – but what might happen if the claims are too close to the bone for Peck’s cousin, and others in positions of power?

This was an enjoyable read, and one that sent the mind quite reeling. Reeling, in my experience at least, for comparisons. It had some of the pre-Victorian, non-industrialised world perhaps of The Crucible or The Scarlet Letter – the book goes a long way whilst hiding quite when this is, only showing that we’re in a world where the city Peck has left is a much worse place, and the village is now running low on teabags. It clearly could be said to be a metaphor for the kind of flaming comments and slander seen on another wall – that on Facebook, and this definitely has parallels with social media. But something about everything here – the tone, the style, and the characters trying to get the best out of justice, also made me think of the Three Billboards movie.

It must be noted that none of that prevents this book from being its own entity, and nothing this rich and surprising would ever be happy to act as a clear metaphor for just one thing and leave it at that. This could be said to look at any society where the search for truth and justice is carried out less forensically than needed, and where one anonymous, bad word is allowed to hold sway. It also makes us think – not that this here is exactly an eye for an eye – what kind of punishment our criminals should serve. All this and a strong page-turning quality, in a debut novel, shows great promise from a creator previously known, apparently, for plays. This has hard themes and events that are never glamorised or treated poorly, so it can tend to being a little too dark for some potential readers, but nobody should be put off considering this earthy, gripping piece. The Last Good Man is, ultimately, a serious and seriously good book.

Review by John Lloyd

Publisher : Bloomsbury Publishing (12 Nov. 2020)