Judge Peter Murphy’s third novel in the Ben Schroeder series takes us into the realm of historical fiction. Once again the action is set in the 1960s, but this time there is the addition of “real” people. In a libel case, the plaintiff is Sir James Digby QC, Chancery Silk, scion of the landed gentry, and a chess genius. The imaginary Digby is one of the Apostles at Cambridge in the early 1930s along with the real Philby, Blunt and Maclean.
During the war, his analytical skills and perfect German made him a natural recruit for some of the most sensitive and secret intelligence work. Once the war ends, he is a natural journalist to cover international chess tournaments held in a friendly Soviet Union.
Is he also a spy? An American academic, Francis Hollander, certainly thinks so, and has published an article saying so. The story opens with Hollander’s arrival in England eff ectively to be sued, with MI6 waiting for him at the airport. On Digby’s side is the team we’ve learned to like from Murphy’s first two books, Bernard Wesley QC and decent and quietly brilliant Ben Schroeder. For the defendant is the arrogant Miles Overton QC and the more human Virginia Castle. We cheer along the youngsters each of whom is romantically involved with a solicitor. There is a sub-plot around the attempt by their Inn, Middle Temple, to discipline them for touting, even though the relationship began as a purely professional one. Ancient rules and outdated notions of sexual morality are at stake. This is all many years before the Inns stopped preventing barristers from taking their solicitors into lunch in Hall, let alone having sex with them after hours.
A good deal of the skill in the writing is in the switch of narrator. Much is in third person, but Digby provides long passages in the fi rst person of his life story. The truth gradually emerges through this, not from the forensic process. Blunt (clever), Philby (persuasive) and Burgess (drunk) thus appear convincingly as characters. There is also a good deal about chess and suffi cient historic scene-setting, down to the particular date in the Spanish Civil War when Digby’s elder brother and hero is likely to have been killed fighting in an International Brigade. All this is done with lightness of touch; there is no mere showing-off of his knowledge by the author.
The question of loyalty, particularly loyalty that confl icts with principle, has played an important part in the earlier books in this series: loyalty to colleagues who have misconducted themselves, and loyalty to clients whether they are guilty or not. The mere mention of the “Cambridge spies” brings in as well the question of loyalty to friends, to country, and to political beliefs. The title reminds us of innocent undergraduate days, before our actions began to have consequences. Whether Digby ever gains an insight into what he has done is part of the mystery of this fascinating novel.
Reviewer: David Wurtzel