McMullan cleverly combines the well-worn conceits of provincial claustrophobia and rural gothic with our contemporary politics of collective outrage, call-out culture and alternative facts. The result is a fast-paced, engaging novel, and the human drama into which Peck is drawn seldom feels subordinated to the editorializing urges of the author. That said, one cannot help feeling that McMullan’s most fertile creative proposition – the Wall, and its role as a disciplining panopticon – might have served as the basis for a more insightful psychological (and political) drama. As it is, the novel has the quality of a parable, or fairy tale, which forbids this kind of depth.
The spiralling demands of justice in the village make for gripping storytelling, and McMullan has a sureness with violence that puts him in the company of Sarah Moss and Benjamin Myers (or the film director Ben Wheatley, who would ace an adaptation of this). Weaknesses show up in the more loosely written flashbacks to Peck’s time in the city, while a firm grasp on the levers of social psychology doesn’t quite make up for a general flimsiness of characterisation. Even so, The Last Good Man is viciously captivating: frightening to be around, impossible to put aside – a bit like other humans, in fact.
There is an enormous, unfinished wall looming over the Dartmoor village at the heart of Thomas McMullan’s debut novel. Duncan Peck is a stranger who has fled the city, where fires burn and violence is rife, for the safety of his cousin’s village, but as he arrives, he sees the villagers dragging a man from a bog. “But there is no gratitude in the hunted man’s eyes, and no colour in his cheeks as his hands and feet are bound in rope, as he is lifted into the wheelbarrow and carted off at the head of an ordered procession.”... There are hints of The Crucible and The Lottery here, as the atmosphere grows increasingly febrile and cruel. As one villager says: “There have been more punishments lately… The mood is turning sour.” Disturbing and claustrophobic.
The prose style is filmic: lots of short, descriptive sentences, the camera panning from one disaster to the next, almost like a screenplay. McMullan succeeds with this style because it suits the subject matter of his book so well. The Last Good Man is eerie and atmospheric in evoking a chilling, believable dystopia that could be coming to a town near you.
he seemingly close rural community is not as cosy as it seems. Disgruntled citizens air their grievances by writing on an enormous wall, with retribution delivered by the ‘law and order’ and a team of ‘chasers’. Sins are made into literal burdens as wrongdoers are roped to crushingly heavy items of furniture — and, as Peck discovers, other punishments are far worse.
McMullan makes highly effective use of the rugged landscape, full of unease and portents, in his creepily unsettling debut, a timely tale about the dangers of toxic rhetoric and mob rule.
The Last Good Man explores themes of forgiveness and revenge and what can make a person feel “unmoored” in life. Twitter is the modern psychotic rabbit hole, of course, but McMullan’s tale is a brilliantly unsettling parable about how we police our societies through violence, language and shame – and how it’s easy to orchestrate the use of hatred in public spaces.