The Insect Farm


By Stuart Prebble

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An eerie debut suspense novel that explores how little one man may know his own brother — and his own mind.

The Maguire brothers each have their own driving, single-minded obsession. For Jonathan, it is his magnificent, talented, and desirable wife, Harriet. For Roger, it is the elaborate universe he has constructed in a shed in their parents’ garden, populated by millions of tiny insects. While Jonathan’s pursuit of Harriet leads him to feelings of jealousy and anguish, Roger’s immersion in the world he has created reveals a capability and talent which are absent from his everyday life.

Roger is known to all as a loving, protective, yet simple man, but the ever-growing complexity of the insect farm suggests that he is capable of far more than anyone believes. Following a series of strange and disturbing incidents, Jonathan begins to question every story he has ever been told about his brother — and if he has so completely misjudged Roger’s mind, what else might he have overlooked about his family, and himself?

The Insect Farm is a dramatic psychological thriller about the secrets we keep from those we love most, and the extent to which the people closest to us are also the most unknowable. In his astounding debut, Stuart Prebble guides us through haunting twists and jolting discoveries as a startling picture emerges: One of the Maguire brothers is a killer, and the other has no idea.



There was no particular sense of urgency about the first call that had come in. The duty sergeant’s log said that an unpleasant smell had been reported coming from a shed on a site of allotments and that the caller had been advised to contact the local council. It was not until three days later, when a complaint was received from the head teacher of a primary school situated next to the allotments, that any notice was taken. A supply teacher who had previously served in the army had mentioned it was a smell he had known before, one he associated with decaying flesh. Even then, it was coincidental that the chief inspector of the Serious Crimes Unit was within hearing distance when two constables were being briefed to go to take a look.

“What did the original caller say it was?” asked one of the constables.

“An insect farm, whatever that is.”

The unfamiliar phrase triggered a distant memory in the chief inspector. He asked if he could hitch a ride.

Thirty minutes later the patrol car pulled up at the allotments. Already parked outside were another police car and a van from the Environmental Health Department. In the middle distance, beyond the wire fence and padlocked gate, the chief inspector could see the outline of the building, which was surrounded by half-a-dozen men dressed in overalls and a policewoman.

It took a few moments for the policewoman to unlock the gate, and all four officers set off towards the abandoned shed. Ahead of them they could see that two men from the council wearing what looked like beekeeper outfits were just about to open the door. The inspector winced as the rank smell of rotting flesh was picked up by the breeze. On one side of the path he noticed a man wearing working clothes.

“That’s Mr. Bolton, who reported the problem,” said the policewoman. “He says the shed has been here since well before he took over his own allotment from his father years ago. He first noticed the smell at the weekend and reported it to us and the council on Monday.”

“What made him call us?”

“I think everyone was a bit freaked out by the stench. Shall we stop them from going in?”

The senior officer shook his head.

At first it seemed as though the door had been holding back a mound of powdery soil, which was now spilling out onto the ground in front of the shed like waves on a shoreline. A few steps nearer, what had appeared to be a swamp of inert particles was now a growing mass, swirling and churning within itself. Close up, it became clear that the rising tide was made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny insects, crawling and tumbling over one another as if they were a moving seascape. The officers took a step back.

“What the hell…?”

The two men in protective clothing waited for the initial surge of tiny bodies to subside and then edged forward through the open door, wading above their ankles in the teeming creatures, multitudes of them, all shapes and sizes, still being driven outwards by the pressure of their own weight. Minuscule red ants were clambering over larger beetles, which scrambled across the backs of grasshoppers and cockroaches. Mixed in haphazardly were worms and moths, all spreading out like an oil slick. Millions of legs waved wildly in the air, as though trying to gain a foothold.

Within less than a minute the men reemerged, in a state of agitation and trying to kick off the insects still clinging to their boots. They struggled to remove their face masks, as though in panic. One bent over as the mask fell to the floor, coughing violently and gasping for air. After a few seconds he straightened up and turned towards the police officers.

“You need to get some of your people to look in there.” He was still trying to catch his breath as the other man removed his helmet.

“I think there are two of them, but there is just about nothing left. Two human skeletons, both picked almost clean.”


If you have been lucky enough to be able to tell the truth for most of your life, you probably cannot imagine how exhausting it is to spend forever living a lie. The never-ending necessity to police the gap between the thoughts going on inside your head and what is being conveyed to the outside world by your words, your actions, and your eyes.

From the cheating wife or husband, who spends years in the most intimate relationship with their spouse while all the time living a parallel life with someone else, to the double agent, whose safety depends on appearing as one thing to one side while being entirely something else to the other. In the end, it’s usually the sheer exhaustion of it which is their undoing.

In my defense I would say that the effort has been hard for me because deception was not something which came naturally. I had to learn how to conceal the appalling secret which I have kept for all these years, and I made many mistakes along the way. As for my brother Roger? Who knows? Who could ever really know what was going on in the mind of Roger?

Roger was six years older than me, and a six-year gap normally means you have very little in common with your older brother. No shared friends, toys, mysteries, or secret camps. The ten-year-old will have defrocked the tooth fairy before the four-year-old has lost his first teeth. The twelve-year-old will be wondering where Mum and Dad have hidden the presents while the six-year-old is expecting them to arrive down the chimney. The fifty-year-old isn’t far from the forty-four-year-old, but the sixteen-year-old is a whole generation apart from his ten-year-old sibling. Normally.

But Roger was never like any ordinary kid. I always knew that, though at the time I had no idea of why or how. These were the fifties and sixties, and while it’s true that Roger always was a bit difficult to categorize, if pressed to put a label on what Roger was, most people would have chosen the word “simple.”

I remember forbidding hospitals with long echoing corridors painted green and cream and smelling of the unequal battle between stale urine and antiseptic. We waited for many hours on hard chairs in cold rooms, with notice boards displaying posters warning of everything from tooth decay to rabies. I watched from a distance as my beloved brother crouched over wooden shapes set out on a small table, trying his best to piece one to another. I saw the tiny lines plowed in his forehead as he struggled to understand what it was that was being asked of him, and even then, when I was maybe two or three myself, I broke loose from whoever held me to rush over and hand him the round wooden tube that so very obviously was designed to go into the round wooden hole.

I remember our mother, sitting on the long bench seat at the back of the 54 bus on the journey home, her self-control faltering as she struggled to make sense of it all. Her whispered conversations with Dad behind closed doors, a mix of frustration and despair. “Why us?” and “What will become of him?”

From my own point of view, though, any awareness of a problem relating to Roger was way in the future. All I knew was that I had an older brother who was much taller than I was but who liked to do the same stuff I liked. I was far too young to worry about what would become of him—I just loved that he did not treat me with the same contempt with which most older brothers treated their younger brothers and that he was happy to play the same games that I wanted to play.

Roger was content to take all the turns at being Silver so that I could take all the turns in being the Lone Ranger. He was happy to be the camel so that I could be Lawrence of Arabia. He would blunder around for hours with a scarf tied over his eyes while I shrieked and ducked and weaved as though one touch of his outstretched fingertips would spell instant electrocution.

Photos taken at that time show two young boys, one tall and gangly, the other smaller and with more puppy fat; obvious siblings, one just a newer imprint of the other. Without exception they show two lads with smiling faces, perhaps carrying buckets and spades or sitting side by side in a dodgem car or on a carousel, often with the bigger boy’s arm draped protectively over the shoulder of the younger.

There seems to be nothing in those fading photographs to give any hint of what was to come. Here we are, Roger and I, sitting on the bank of a river holding fishing rods made out of bits of bamboo with a length of nylon attached. Here we are again, sitting astride a concrete lion guarding the gates of a stately home. Two lads, one aged maybe four, the other ten, floppy haircuts and floppy limbs, neither with a care in the world.

The younger brother in the photographs is undoubtedly the less good-looking, unquestionably the less athletic of the two. His beam into the camera is more guarded and less unswerving than the clear gaze of his older sibling. Though it is not comfortable to admit it, if forced to identify the retard in this picture, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the average observer would choose me.

Of the two of us, I was the one who thought it a good idea to use my coloring crayons to join up the polka dots on the wallpaper in the bedroom we shared, while Roger confined his involvement to a fit of giggling. I was the one who experimented with the possibility of human flight by jumping off the garage roof, breaking my ankle in the attempt and leaving Roger collapsed in tears on the grass as the ambulance took me away. And I was the one who took our homemade go-cart and careered within inches of the path of an oncoming bus.

One day I was playing hopscotch near our house with three friends of my own age when a bigger boy who lived nearby decided to wreck our game by rubbing out our chalk lines on the pavement. Brian Maddox was the same age as my brother Roger and far bigger and stronger than either of us. More important than that, members of the Maddox family were used to fighting in a way that we were not. We were not soft, but neither were we quite that sort of family. Not like the Maddoxes.

Brian pushed me to one side when I protested, and in a moment of recklessness, much like the one which had propelled me off the garage roof and into space, I summoned all my strength and shoved him backwards. He regained his balance quickly and came back strong and hard, lashing out with closed fists. Instinctively I fought back, but was no match for him.

I still remember the look on Roger’s face when I came into the house, shedding floods of tears and bleeding from scraped knees. He seemed in that instant to become another person, someone I did not recognize, and I watched in amazement as he strode along the street to where a group of boys included Brian and attacked without pause or hesitation. There was a brief whirlwind of flailing limbs as Roger advanced and more or less fell onto the bully, both of them thudding down onto the concrete sidewalk. Three kids had to pull Roger off the boy, who limped away with a stream of blood and saliva flowing from his mouth. After that, no one in the area bullied me again.

Even in those earliest days, though, Roger had his softer side. I remember that we were driving one day to the seaside in Dad’s car, singing songs and generally having a good time, when there was the sound of a splat on the windscreen as a large flying insect met a dramatic end. Roger suddenly stopped singing.

“What would happen,” he said after a few moments, “if enough cars drove along enough roads and killed enough insects?” He paused. “In the end, would there be any insects left?”

There was silence as my mother tried to formulate her answer.

“I don’t think there is much danger of that, Roger. There are so many fields and hedges and forests where there aren’t any cars,” she said, trying to sound reassuring. “But it is a pity—”

“Yes,” my father interrupted her, “apart from anything else, they make such a bloody mess on the windscreen.” I was ready to burst out laughing, but just in time I saw a look of sadness on Roger’s face, which I don’t think I had seen before, and had to make an effort to suppress my amusement.

So yes, even from the earliest days, Roger and I were inseparable. If Roger was a problem or had a problem or caused a problem, then none of these problems was mine. All I had was the sort of older brother that everyone would wish for: bigger than me, stronger than me, and who would do anything for me, as indeed I would for him.

It was only a matter of time before some busybody—maybe a doctor or a teacher or a social worker—suggested that it wasn’t good for me to spend so much time with Roger. It was nice that the brothers were so close, but perhaps I needed some other friends of my own if my development was not to be impaired. No doubt the idea of two kids with restricted development so alarmed our parents that they were thrown into a panic. For several days there were whispered discussions which were said, when I inquired, to be “nothing to do with you.” It turned out that they were everything to do with me, because the upshot was that in the summer holidays of 1959, when I was eight, my parents made me join the local Cub Scouts, and I was packed off on the annual summer camping trip to Torbay.

A more loyal fellow than I would be able to report the distress from missing his older brother and only true friend, every hour and every day, and of pining for the opportunity to make an early return. However, such is the promiscuity of youth and the enchanting nature of anything new that I should admit that for most of my time away I hardly missed Roger at all. The novelty of cooking our own food around campfires, of going on treasure hunts, building rafts, and singing songs to the accompaniment of out-of-tune guitars, and all of it way past my usual bedtime, absorbed my small life.

Having made the phone call to reassure parents that we had arrived safely, we were encouraged to contact our homes as seldom as possible, and in my case this involved an occasional brief call on a crackly phone line from the red telephone box in the nearby village. My memories are all overlaid by the smell of damp cloth and canvas. Damp socks and sleeping bags. Damp grass and sneakers. If I was missing Roger, I don’t think I sent a message to say so, and if he was missing me—well, the unattractive truth is that I hardly gave it a thought.

*  *  *

Time is distorted in the young mind, and at this vantage point I cannot recall whether I was away for as little as a week or as much as two. Whatever the case, I know that it was not until the end of the holidays, as we were packing up our soggy clothes into sodden bundles and pledging lifelong allegiance to the new friends we had made over burned sausages and dew-soaked sleeping bags, that my mind returned to my family. Only then, as coaches departed en route to Basildon and Dagenham and other places on the periphery of my tiny universe, did I give any thought at all to what had become of Roger during what seemed to be a long absence. For all this time I had enjoyed constant entertainment and companionship while he, I had little doubt, would have had few activities provided for him, and few if any friends to play with.

Before leaving for the six-hour bus ride, we were instructed to make one last phone call home to confirm our expected time of arrival. Having reassured my mother that everything was fine and that I was looking forward to seeing her again, I asked:

“How is Roger?”

“Roger?” she said, as though she didn’t know who I meant. “Oh, Roger’s fine.”

“Has he been missing me?”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she said. It was obviously not something she had thought about. “He hasn’t mentioned it.”

In my egocentric world, for a moment I was hurt not to have been missed and thought it entirely irrelevant that I had hardly missed Roger either. “Will he be there…?” I began to say, but she was gone.

The journey back from Torbay seemed to take forever and was punctuated only from time to time by some halfhearted attempts at singing the songs which had sounded so melodious when sung around the campfire.

After the hilarity of making faces and V-signs at passing motorists wore off, some of us went to sleep and others retreated into our own thoughts. Eventually any feeling of guilt I experienced at not having communicated with the brother from whom I had been all but inseparable gradually gave way to anxiety to see him, an anxiety that grew as the miles passed by and the thatches and hedges of rural England merged into suburbs. Though I hadn’t missed him at the time, I now missed him awfully in retrospect, so that by the time the bus neared the gates of the school where we were due to be met by our families, I found myself craning my neck to catch an early glimpse of my brother amongst the gathering.

“Where’s Roger?” I asked. The look on my mother’s face was enough to tell me that the more diplomatic thing would have been to express joy at seeing her.

“Oh, Roger’s at home. He said he’d see you when you got there,” said my mother.

I was disappointed. “Didn’t he want to come to meet me?”

“I don’t know,” said my dad. “He was preoccupied.”

“What with?”

It was clear that my parents didn’t want to talk about Roger. They were eager to know how their younger son had fared during his first extended stay away from them. But at that age you don’t care about the stuff that has happened already; that was great but is in the past, and what’s the point of going over it with someone else who wasn’t there? So I didn’t tell my parents that I had had a great time but had missed them both. I didn’t mention how much I had missed my mother’s cooking and a good-night cuddle. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever got round to telling my parents properly that I appreciated them or that I knew what they had done for me. By now all of my attention was focused on Roger, on seeing him again and finding out what he had been doing. How had he coped without me? Maybe, even at so young an age, I was disgruntled that he seemed to have coped every bit as well without me as I had coped without him. In the sense that obviously he didn’t share my anxiety for an immediate reunion, perhaps he had coped rather better.

Our family home was a small row house in Croydon, southeast London, though if anyone had described it as a row house within earshot of my mother she would instantly have put them right. She preferred the expression “one of three,” which meant that we had a semidetached house on one side of us and a semidetached house on the other side of us, leaving our house most accurately described as “a row house”; but not to my mother. The house was one of those between-the-wars mock something or other, with fake timbers embedded in pebble-dash, which characterized the southern suburbs of London and no doubt many other cities.

“Where’s Roger?” I said again as we got out of the car and he was nowhere to be seen. I thought that if he couldn’t come to meet the coach, he might at least have been waiting at the window, but there was no sign of my older brother; no twitch of the nets to indicate his presence. When I burst through the front door in late August of 1959, it took me all of forty seconds to put my head into every room in the house and to reach the conclusion that Roger wasn’t in any of them.

“Where’s Roger?”

Considering that the purpose of my banishment to summer camp had been to loosen my ties with my older brother, my mother and father now seemed to take pleasure in my enthusiasm to see him again. Who can be the parent of siblings and not take pride in their closeness?

“I guess he’s in the shed,” said my mother. “That’s where he spends most of his time lately.”

There was a tiny garden at the back of the house laid to lawn with a few ornamental flower beds carved into the soil and filled with specimen roses, the names of which were written in black Magic Marker on yellow labels affixed like a dog collar to the stems. Beyond the boundary fence there was a garage which was designed to accommodate just one car but was filled to the rafters with my dad’s tools, offcuts of timber, and some garden equipment. Next to that again was a large wooden shed, which had been allocated to Roger and me for use as a den. Over the years the shed had doubled as a cave (in our Batman and Robin phase), as a stable (in our Wyatt Earp phase), and as a spaceship (in our Dan Dare/conquering-other-planets phase).

“What’s he doing?” It had never occurred to me that Roger could effectively occupy himself without me. I was thinking of all our games together—most of which involved an inseparable pair. “How can he be spending time in the shed when I’m not around?”

Roger had his back to me when I yanked open the shed door and threw myself in. Just beyond him I could see what looked like a pane of glass, all smeared and dirty, with a bank of soil behind it. The atmosphere smelled of the damp and dank of wet earth, the smell you associate with nightmares of being buried alive.

“What’s that?” I asked him.

“Oh, hi, Jonathan.” He said it more or less as he would have done if I’d popped back to the house five minutes ago for a glass of orange squash. “It’s my insect farm.”

“What’s an insect farm?”

He hesitated, as I might have hesitated if someone had asked me what the moon is. As though the answer is obvious, but you want to find the right words which don’t imply you think the person asking the question is an idiot.

“It’s a place where you keep insects so that you study them.” Roger still had not turned to look at me.

“What kinds of insects?”

“Well, you can keep any kinds of insects you like. All you have to do is to create the right conditions for them to live in. These are ants.” Roger stood back to allow me a better view through the gloom at the installation in front of him. It looked like an aquarium that you might use for tropical fish, except that the panes of glass were only an inch or so apart at the width. “Come closer and have a look.”

I did, and on the edge of my vision, I caught a glimpse of Roger in the half darkness. It had been only a week or two, but something about him seemed older. Or if not older, then perhaps more mature, or in command. That was probably the first time I noticed a little bit of downy fluff in front of his ears and across his top lip. Roger was fourteen and entering puberty, but at the time I didn’t know what puberty was, and was much more interested in examining whatever had preoccupied him so thoroughly that he hadn’t had the chance to miss his younger brother and only real friend. Still, the only thing I could make out was a mass of what looked like soil, squished up against the glass.

“Closer still.”

It was not until my face was a few inches away and my eyes began to adjust to the gloom that I could identify anything other than the sludge. Gradually I began to focus, and I could make out tiny avenues carved into the soil, little thoroughfares in which I detected the shapes of tiny creatures. Dozens and dozens of them slowly materialized, scuttling backwards and forwards, tripping and clambering over one another, apparently oblivious to anything other than whatever was their task at hand.

“Amazing,” I said, and it was true. Obviously I wanted to be nice to Roger about his new preoccupation, but actually I genuinely did think it was amazing. “What are they doing?”

“Look even closer, and you’ll see.” Roger handed me a magnifying glass.

“How come Dad let you play with this?” The magnifying glass had belonged to our grandfather who had died a decade ago. It was understood that it now belonged to Roger and me, but we hadn’t been allowed to keep it among our stuff because Dad said it was too expensive to be used as a toy. I remember feeling a sting of resentment that Roger had been allowed to use it without me being there.

“I’m not playing with it,” Roger said. It was a distinction which carried a lot of importance at that age. “I’m using it to study the ants. It’s what it was meant for.”

I already knew that the magnifying glass wasn’t meant for melting toy soldiers with the focused beam of the sun, as Roger and I had been doing when we were first allowed to try it out. I took it from him and drew it backwards and forwards, Sherlock Holmes–style, attempting to focus on the glass frame.

“Keep watching carefully,” he said, “and you’ll be able to see what they’re doing.”


As the years went by, and my older brother and I passed through our childhood and into adolescence, Roger’s preoccupation with his beloved insect farm expanded and grew, just as did my interest in music, fashion, and, of course, girls.

I always think it’s implausible when characters in police dramas seem to know where they were on the night when the crime was committed, but I can remember vividly and in detail the occasion when I first met Harriet. It was in the end of the autumn term during my second year in the sixth form, and I recall it for two reasons—one was, of course, that first sight of her. The other was that it was the evening of the farewell concert by the blues band Cream.

A ramshackle group of us had arranged to go to the concert, and I was there with Angela, who was my girlfriend of the moment. Angela was fabulous, or certainly I thought so at the time. Long straight brown hair, as thin as a rake, with tiny scarcely budding breasts, and those dark shadows below her eyes which we associated with late nights and soft drugs and which later came to be toughened up by fashion and labeled “heroin chic.” Angela knew the right places to buy the right clothes, was always on the crest of whatever was the latest wave, and somehow managed to be wherever it was “at.”

Harriet was also with a boyfriend on that night, although she told me later that they were just mates and were not sleeping together. I took some comfort from that, until I realized that this did not mean that they were not having sex. To Harriet, sleeping with someone would have involved a whole level of intimacy that merely having sex would not have come near, but all that represented a dimension of Harriet that it was way in my future to learn about.


  • "Chilling and suspenseful, rich and human."—Lee Child, #1 bestselling author of Personal
  • "Only rarely do a gripping psychological crime story and a literary writer's insight and masterful style coincide. But The Insect Farm has that distinction. You'll read this book fast, so compelling is the story, then--I guarantee--go back and read it again to savor the author's gift for rich, lyrical writing. A tour de force."—Jeffery Deaver, bestselling author of Solitude Creek
  • "The opening few pages of The Insect Farm so grabbed me that I couldn't stop reading. This is one of the most original, surprising, and even shocking suspense thrillers that I've come across in a long time."—David Morrell, bestselling author of Inspector of the Dead and Murder as a Fine Art

On Sale
Feb 28, 2017
Page Count
320 pages
Mulholland Books

Stuart Prebble

About the Author

Stuart Prebble is the author of The Insect Farm and a producer of documentary and current-affairs programs for television. He was formerly CEO of the UK television network ITV and is currently chairman of the TV production company StoryVault Films. He lives in London.

Learn more about this author