A four-star review on Amazon for Crucial Evidence
‘The author draws on her experience in the practice of law to create a realistically vivid portrayal of London’s legal system. The intricate detail of the various actors and roles provides a necessary solid (factual) foundation for the fictional account with the real-time, verbatim court proceedings stations the reader in the gallery of this tensely mesmerizing drama.’
Holland Walk is the scene of the murder of Shelley Paulson in my novel Crucial Evidence. I describe it as a being ‘poorly lit, the overhanging trees creating areas of deep shade; just the sort of place for a murder’ I am not the only one to describe it in those sort of terms. In 1845 the Kensington Gazette was receiving letters which described the Walk as a ‘dark sink hole’ dismal and dangerous owing to the erection of high fences and the lack of lighting. One correspondent wrote of apprehension of insecurity being such that his wife and daughters had to be warned not to use it. Yet another writer said he was ‘constantly afraid of forbidding presence of a thug’ and it was a ‘rendezvous for the obscene’
The Walk did not follow the same route as it does now, but at that stage turned across the front of Holland House but two years after the correspondence in the press the footpath was straightened so that it was as it is now.
There has been a death there in the distant past when after a robbery occurred in the Walk during one afternoon in October 1772, Lady Mary Coke who lived in Aubrey House (which also features in my novel) heard the sound of a pistol while she was reading in her library. A highwayman had been shot on the road outside her grounds.
It certainly is a suitable place for a murder.
I want to acknowledge the publication by Barbara Denny ‘Notting Hill and Holland Park Past.’
Anyone who writes a legal thriller must be influenced by John Grisham. I know I was and still am. Some of his books are about lawyers rather than the law, but I think he is at his best when his stories have legal principles at their heart. His first novel ‘A Time to Kill’ examined the dilemma between right and wrong, and legal or illegal. The main protagonist in the novel is lawyer Jake Brigance and he believes his client Carl Lee Hailey by killing the assailants of his daughter ( a very brutal rape ) had the moral high ground. Can Brigance ensure Hailey is acquitted on the grounds of insanity and how will the lawyer try to ensure that happens. It is a gripping tale because as Grisham says in the opening note ‘The greatest dramas occur not on screens or stages, but daily in countless courtrooms across this country’ The same can be said of courtrooms in the UK although the drama is often concealed behind the more clinical approach of barristers and solicitors in English courts.
When I wrote my novel ‘Crucial Evidence’ I wanted to tell a story about a female barrister who believed passionately in justice and was prepared to compromise her own career in order to ensure her client received a fair trial. When the novel was first published and I searched for the book on Amazon using the title ‘Crucial Evidence’, John Grisham’s novel Sycamore Row came up on the screen side by side with mine own novel. I have finally read the book, which is described as a sequel to’ A Time to Kill.’ Jake Brigance is once again battling racial prejudice when a rich white male, Seth Hubbard, kills himself and leaves the bulk of his wealth to his cleaning lady, a younger black female, and specifically disinherited his children and grandchildren. Hubbard has instructed Jake to fight any attempt by his family to set aside the will. The trial has its ups and downs and illustrates one of the interesting things about this type of novel – the reader is encouraged to form a view of the witnesses, the judges rulings and the jury’s verdict.
Grisham understands the way lawyers work,( something that writers of police procedurals don’t often show in their descriptions of police work) and their was one passage in Sycamore Row which I thought reflected my own feelings about being an advocate. Jake’s wife asks him ‘Why do you want to be a trial lawyer?’
And he gives this answer, ‘Because I love it. It’s what being a lawyer is all about. Being in a courtroom, in front of a jury, is like being in an arena, or on the field. The competition is fierce. The stakes are high. The gamesmanship is intense. There will be a winner and a loser. There is a rush of adrenaline each time the jury is led in and seated.’
This is the working title of my new novel and so far I am about half way through the first draft. Some how the summer has not been conducive to writing – who wants to be stuck in front of a computer when the sun is shining outside. I think too, I am rather daunted by the task I have set myself. I didn’t think about it with Crucial Evidence. I’d started that as part of my dissertation for my MA and I just kept going until I’d finished. Then I drafted and redrafted without thinking, each time telling myself that this time it would work and when I sent it to agents someone would love. They didn’t and I began to realize that it wasn’t my writing that was the real problem but the type of book I wanted to write. Also talking to agents at places like Winchester Writers’ Conference and at The London Book Fair I knew any publisher would want a series of novels and I didn’t want to be tied to writing a book a year. In the end I decided to publish the book myself. In the process I’ve learnt at lot about writing and publishing, but that makes the mountain I have to climb much higher and harder than the first. I know how long it takes and how difficult it can be.
But you have to begin somewhere so this is the first page of my second novel. It follows the career of barrister Cassie Hardman as she gets her first leading brief in a murder case.
‘As Cassie hurried along the driveway from Snaresbrook Crown Court towards the tube station, she turned on her mobile phone. Amongst the emails from fashion houses, department stores and restaurants, there was a message showing the subject matter as Paul Sadler. He had been the defendant in a rape trial, who she had successfully defended at the Old Bailey the week before last. She didn’t recognise the name of the sender, Malcolm Delaney. Normally she was very careful about opening emails from unknown people but it was from someone who knew about her involvement in the Sadler case. She clicked the message open and read, ‘Miss Hardman, I wanted to congratulate you on your representation of Mr Sadler. Your cross examination was very effective and your closing remarks were obviously persuasive. Clearly they carried the jury along, as you know from the verdict. I would like the opportunity of congratulating you in person, and would like to invite you to have lunch or dinner with me. We can arrange a time and place later. I look forward to hearing from you. Malcolm’
The email gave no clue as to how Malcolm Delaney, knew she had represented Paul Sadler or what Delaney’s connection to the case was. Was he a police officer, a member of the court staff or just a spectator from the public gallery? She knew there were a number who came regularly to watch the proceedings at the Bailey; the staff described them as ‘groupies’ and she had been told by one of the ushers that some of them would ask which barristers were appearing in which court and make a point of watching their favourites’ cases. The wording of the message was a little old fashioned so perhaps it was one of them. The thought that one of the men from the gallery wanted to invite her to dinner amused her, but nothing more.
Back in Chambers, the senior clerk, Jack, summoned her into his room and closed the door behind her. On his desk were four lever arch files, tied with pink tape, the front sheet bore the title R v David Winston Montgomery. Jack beamed at her. ‘I’ve managed to get you a leading brief in a murder at the Bailey. I assume you’ll want to apply for silk in a couple of years. This is a good one; you’re ready for it, even though it’s a murder. None of the silks want this. Scared they’ll get tarred with a racist brush, I dare say. A woman won’t of course. Judge Crabtree is in a bit of a panic thinking the defendant might want to represent himself. I said, to Colin in the list office, my Miss Hardman can handle it. Spoke to Tim. Didn’t take long to persuade him you could do it. So there you are a leading brief in a murder.’
Any comments to make about that so important first page.
One of my favourite books is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Indeed it was the first book on the reading list when I began to study law at the University of Sheffield. In it Esther Summerson describes going into Old Square Lincoln’s Inn ‘we passed into sudden quietude under an old gateway, and drove on through a silent square..’ and in The Mystery of Edwin Drood the change as one passes into the Inns of Court in this case Staple Inn is evoked in these words – ‘It is one of those nooks the turning into of which out of the clashing street imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his ears and velvet on the soles of his boots.’
I’m not sure it is so quiet these days but walking into Middle Temple towards Fountain Court one does leave much of the bustle of modern London at the entrance. Today the gateway under the sign of the Knights Templars is guarded by a modern barrier to prevent any entry by motor vehicles. It does look rather incongruous.
There is a small shop at the entrance that is now the premises of Thresher and Glenny Tailors and Outfitters for three hundred years, the blackboard proclaims along with the boast that they were the inventors of the Trench Coat and through the window I could see a khaki coloured coat looking rather battered as if it had lived through two world wars, as indeed it may have.
As I walked down Middle Temple Lane where my imaginary Burke Court is set squeezed in between other sets of Chambers, rather like platform 9 and 3/4 at Kings Cross nothing has changed for two centuries, although I suspect it is rather cleaner than it was. I did see a noticeboard with posters warning about terrorist threats, thefts and events in Middle Temple Gardens; similar lunches may well have been enjoyed in the Garden, indeed the Inns were known for their conviviality, but City of London Police posters would not have been evident until recently.
In Fountain Court, where John Westlock woos Ruth Pinch in Martin Chuzzlewit, the fountain splashes into the round stone basin, the mulberries stain the ground around it and a young man eats his lunchtime sandwich from a Pret A Manger carrier bag.
I have described The Temple in the following passage taken from my novel, Crucial Evidence-
‘Cassie’s chambers were at 3 Burke Court, part of that area of London inhabited by lawyers for centuries and known as The Temple. Walking through the arch bearing the Pascal Lamb, was like time travelling; each time, she was stepping out of the tumult of the twenty-first century into the ordered calm of the eighteenth. She was reminded of her home town, where similar Georgian buildings surrounded the castle, built by John O’Gaunt, which remained a centre of law and punishment, judges and offenders at its heart. So unlike The Temple which turned its back on the bulk of the Royal Courts of Justice across the Strand, a row of the banks and sandwich shops providing a barricade to the noise of traffic and the bustle of pedestrians, and creating a sanctuary of narrow lanes and courtyards for its lawyer inhabitants.’
As I have remarked here the changes are ‘de minimis’ to quote a legal phrase.
I’ve been away and out of contact with the internet again, but at least it has given me enough time to read some books and to do some thinking about my next novel. I’ve written the first 22,000 words so a long way to go on that. As far as the reading, I found a copy of The King of Torts by John Grisham and read it in a couple of days. It’s an awful title but seems to derive from the way class actions are brought in the USA. The protagonist is Clay Carter, a youngish lawyer working for the Office of Public Defender in Wasington DC. He is assigned the case of Tequila Watson who, inexplicably, has become a killer and murdered an acquaintance known as Pumpkin. Carter begins to explore Watson’s backgound and is puzzled by the lack of motive and the absence of any history of violence. Watson is a drug addict who has been in a rehabilitation program and when Carter makes enquiries at the project he is not convinced he is being told the whole truth.
Overworked and underpaid, Carter is ripe pickings for Max Pace who tells him a major Drug Company is willing to pay compensation to Pumpkin’s family and his legal fees if he is acting on their behalf. The secret he must keep is that Watson along with others were treated as guinea pigs with a drug that ‘cures’ addiction but has a side effect in about 8% of the addicts that makes them a killer. Carter quits his job with the Office of Public Defender and earns himself about $15 million. He justifies his actions to himself by arguing that Watson has no defence to the charge of murder. I don’t know if that would be the case in the US but I think under English Law he would have a defence to murder of not to manslaughter. If the drug that turned him into a killer was given to him by the staff at the rehabilitation project as part of his care program then he would be able to claim his mental state was not self-induced and therefore he was not responsible. I had a similar case when Diego Cogolato killed the dress designer Ossie Clark, under the influence of a combination of illegal drugs and prescribed drugs that made him believe Clark was the devil and he heard voices telling him to kill.
Carter is then told about another drug that is widely prescribe and has the side effect of causing growths in the bladder. He files a claim against the Pharmaceutical Company and advertises for other users to contact his law firm so that a large number of complainants are joined in the same action against the company, a class action. These actions enable lawyers involved in the proceedings to earn large sums of money. The novel describes the way these proceedings take place and the dangers in them. I won’t say anymore because it will spoil the story. In the UK these type of actions are rare although the courts can give consent for what is called a Group Litigation Order but the proceedings are controlled by the Judge. Also cost capping orders are made which limit the amount lawyers can earn. There are no juries in civil cases of this type in England so exemplary damages are rarely given. Although there are proposals to have this kind of collective action in certain cases at the moment any move towards that is very slow.
This book perhaps under scores why American writers of legal thrillers have so much more to write about as the US system provides more drama than the UK one. I was certainly told that it was very difficult to sell a legal thriller/mystery to the publishing industry and that only John Grisham can write them. Are there any writers using the English Criminal Justice System as Grisham uses the US one?
A librarian friend commented that he thought the plot of my novel Crucial Evidence was ‘dodgy’ because he couldn’t see why the police had arrested Barker for the murder of Shelley Paulson and why they were so convinced he was guilty just on the basis of a witness identifying him as the killer. It’s an interesting comment and I have questioned myself as to why he thinks that is a fault in the plot. Is it because when a reader opens a crime novel they expect it to begin with a murder followed by a detective following up clues which lead to the identification of the killer and his arrest? Of course that is what many crime stories do, but I wanted to write something different and my story begins after the investigation has finished and at the point where lawyers have been instructed to represent Barker and the trial is about to begin. It is written from the point of view of the barrister, Cassie Hardman and she would not be concerned with why Barker was arrested only whether there was enough evidence to support a prosecution.
Do crime novels present an unrealistic view of policing and of their powers of arrest? Don’t police officers act on anonymous tip offs and informants whose names they don’t reveal? They would be criticised if they did not and programmes like Crime Watch would have little or no part to play in investigation. An identification of the perpetrator of an offence is good evidence and if the accused has admitted he was close to the scene of the murder it seems reasonable for the police to believe he is the killer. Again on the basis of that evidence the relatives of the deceased would expect the accused to the prosecuted and let the jury decide, wouldn’t they?
Colin Stagg the man accused wrongly of killing Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common was arrested because they had information he frequented the common. They arrested him and decided he was rather strange and therefore he must be guilty. There was virtually no evidence against him apart from a forensic psychologist’s assessment made on the basis of letters written to an undercover policewoman offering sex if he admitted to the crime. He did not make any admissions, but was charged with the murder because the police were convinced he was guilty. I remember well the TV shots of Rachel Nickell’s grieving parents as they were interviewed outside the Old Bailey, saying if only the jury had heard the whole story, They were clearly convinced their daughter’s murderer was walking free, and that conviction can only have come from their conversations with police officers.
Is truth stranger than Fiction?