Hunting Ghislaine sounds aggressively anachronistic, given that we know exactly where the woman is: she’s serving 20 years for child sex trafficking in a US federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. The book’s title stems from a well-received podcast of the same name that my former Observer colleague, the inimitable John Sweeney, produced a couple of years ago.
The research from that endeavour informs much of this work. The question is, though, is there anything about the wretched Maxwell that we don’t already know? After all, her trial was closely covered by the international media, she has been the subject of several podcasts, a number of documentaries, she’s been Netflixed, she featured prominently in the Virginia Giuffre case against Prince Andrew (settled out of court for many millions of dollars), and there are six books, not including this one, that I can find devoted to her.
What they all have in common is a lot of second- or third-hand accounts and psychological speculation, but a 3D version of Maxwell remains enigmatically out of grasp. Hunting Ghislaine doesn’t quite break that mould, but owing to Sweeney’s full-powered prose, it’s more compelling than most.
The book divides into three broad sections: Maxwell’s upbringing as the favoured yet traumatised child of the publisher and pension thief Robert Maxwell; her move to the US and her fateful relationship with Jeffrey Epstein; and finally, an extended report on her trial.
The final part is the strongest because Sweeney is able to do what he does best: place himself in the action, rehearse the arguments, and make biting, morally informed character assessments. He also carefully watches Maxwell, how she reacts to evidence and the extraordinary hapless defence her hugely expensive lawyers mounted.
His thesis is that Maxwell’s father was a “monster” (he uses the word repeatedly to establish his case, only occasionally swapping over to “ogre”), and so was Epstein, and in her desire to please these two demanding men, she lost sight of all other meaningful considerations – not least the wellbeing of the young women she lured into Epstein’s corrupting company.
As such, it’s a perfectly sensible proposition, which may well be true, but as Maxwell herself has never really spoken about any of it – she elected not to give evidence at her own trial – it’s hard to know how damaged she was before she began damaging.
As a rule of thumb, however, the degree to which Anna Pasternak features as a witness to Maxwell’s time at Oxford in any given book or documentary shows how out of reach the young Maxwell remains. Pasternak is five years younger, so she could hardly have known her very well. Nonetheless, it doesn’t require any penetrating insight to see that Maxwell was an entitled woman whose social connections and talents were ripe for exploitation by Epstein.
Sweeney raises the question of whether she has been left to carry the can for these two men who, the evidence suggests, killed themselves (Maxwell herself never believed her father’s death was suicide). As he writes: “The vast majority of Epstein’s Palm Beach victims never meet Ghislaine, never hear her name.”
Enough, of course, did, and Sweeney reminds us of the heart-rending testaments to her role in drawing young girls, some with a shocking history of sexual abuse, into Epstein’s depraved ambit. But it has to be said that there is no shortage of men who have committed the most heinous abuse of young girls who walk free or have been prosecuted and served far less time than 20 years.
In this country, for example, the terrifying Rotherham groomers may well be out of prison before Maxwell, but who wants to look closely at the backgrounds from which they emerged? They’re not glamorous, as Maxwell’s was, there are no billionaires, celebrities or superstar politicians involved. To single out Maxwell for demonisation may, to some extent, allow more egregious offenders to slip back into the shadows.
Sweeney concludes: “Ghislaine was both the double victim of monsters and, to those without power and money and connections, a monster in her own right.”
That’s probably a fair assessment, except to say there are many greater monsters active out there. Who’s hunting them?
• Hunting Ghislaine by John Sweeney is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.