Henry Wilt is a man approaching middle-age and facing a mid-life crisis. A graduate of Cambridge University, his later life was not one of stellar gilded brilliance propelling him to the top in the Civil Service, politics, academia, The BBC, or any of the careers usually red-carpeted or fast-tracked for Oxbridge graduates. No, Henry has sunk into suburban mediocrity as a Liberal Studies tutor at the Fenland College of Technology. He isn't even Head of Liberal Studies, as his dissatisfied wife Eva regularly complains to him. In fact, he is, to quote Wikipedia, "a demoralized and professionally under-rated assistant lecturer who teaches literature to uninterested construction apprentices at a community college in the east of England."
Eva is a dissatisfied woman who mixes socially with the wives of professional academics who did so much better than Henry and who have better clothes, better cars, better kitchens and better houses. She relates this dissatisfaction to Henry at every opportunity. And better children? Eva is the sort of larger-than-life woman who does everything to excess. As of the second novel, she's added to Henry's woes by becoming the mother of quads, all girls and all taking after their mother, who are being brought up in an atmosphere of laissez-faire parenting and regurgitated feminist slogans that even their mother only half-understands.
Despairing of his lot, Henry starts to fantasize about killing his wife and starting all over again ... and going on from here will require a lot of plot spoilers.
Wilt was followed by four more novels detailing Henry and Eva's further misadventures: The Wilt Alternative (1979), Wilt on High (1984), Wilt in Nowhere (2004) and The Wilt Inheritance (2010).
Tropes featured include:
- Adaptational Deviation: Filmed in 1989, differences included the American Pringsheims becoming the British West-Ropers.
- Author Avatar: Henry is based loosely on Sharpe himself, and his experiences teaching in the shallow end of Britain's intelligence pool, with particular reference to overarching academic vanity and office politics in higher education.
- Constructive Body Disposal: Wilt, victim of an obscene practical joke involving an inflatable sex-doll, dresses it in his wife's clothes and throws it down a pile hole on a construction site (due to be filled with concrete for the foundations of a new College building); when his wife goes away on an impromptu holiday, Wilt must convince the police he has not disposed of her for real.
- Earth Mother: Eva is a prime example of the cranky underappreciated kind of Earth Mother.
- Fictional Counterpart: Fenland Tech is a fairly obvious parody of what was then the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (CCAT), where Sharpe himself taught for some years. The construction of the extension dates the book fairly closely.
- Henpecked Husband: Henry.
- Interrogated for Nothing: Wilt's strategy when subjected to sleep deprivation by Inspector Flint s to feed him a plausible-sounding but ultimately ridiculous confession to Eva's murder.
- Karma Houdini: Allison, a printing student who mocks a past lecturer's suicide, is shouted at for it by Wilt and gives Wilt a punch that breaks his nose. Wilt's head of department Mr Morris takes Allison's side, so Allison is not punished.
- Manipulative Bastard: Inspector Flint comes to see him as this. Justified, as Henry delights in messing with the police's heads, especially when it comes to feeding them a cock-and-bull story about Eva's disappearance involving meat pies.
- Mistaken for Evidence: After Henry is accused of murdering Eva, the police search his house and find a lot of what looks like damning evidence, including a cleaver he had used to open a can of red lead.
- Mistaken for Murderer: Henry, thanks to his disposing of a sex doll dressed as his wife.
- Psycho Lesbian: Sally Pringsheim.
- Straw Feminist: Sally Pringsheim is a cariacature of a 1970s sexually liberated, pseudo-intellectual American second-wave feminist who Does Not Like Men except for sex, and is a predatory lesbian to boot.
- Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Henry and Eva.