Henry Wilt is in his early 40s and is a man 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 Ipford Tech College. 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."
His wife, 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. She added to Henry's woes by becoming the mother of quads, all girls, all taking after 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.
Tropes featured include:
- Author Avatar: Henry Wilt 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.
- British Unis: The Fenland Tech College, or at least its ambitious senior staff, would dearly love to become one. (Despite the fact they would almost inevitably become a shabby third-tier Clown College.) Unfortunately their first steps to this goal, of becoming accredited to teach ridiculous meaningless pompously titled degrees, are scuppered by the police digging up "Eva" from the cement.
- averted in that Fenland Tech College is a fairly obvious expy of the then-Cambridge College of Arts and Technology,where Sharpe himself taught for some years. The construction of the extension dates the book fairly closely. CCAT did in fact, become the basis for Anglia Ruskin University in the Blair years.
- Cement Shoes: Henry Wilt's farcical attempt to rehearse his fantasy murder of Eva. This involves an inflateable sex doll dressed in her clothes, the foundations of a new College building, and a cement truck.
- Disposing of a Body: 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); 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Recycled Script: A plot device from Indecent Exposure(1971) reappears here. A man arrested by incompetent and largely useless police investigators and subjected to low-level torture, who is innocent of a crime, realises the only way forward is to create a confession which is good enough to fool the police - who are willing to accept a confesssion and aren't prepared to look too closely at it - whilst being, at the same time, so wildly preposterous that any rational court would throw it out. Both confessions involve a food factory dealing with meat produce, which neatly explains the lack of corpse.
- 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