George Orwell described the ‘perfect’ murder in a 1946 article for Tribune, ‘Decline of the English Murder’. The killer should be a respectable, suburban, professional man – perhaps a member of the temperance movement, or the chairman of the local Conservative party. He should be married, but become infatuated with a woman who is socially unavailable and unsuitable, such as the wife of a colleague. His motive should be simultaneously romantic and banal: ‘He should commit murder because this seems to him less disgraceful, and less damaging to his career, than being detected in adultery.’

Perhaps Orwell’s golden age of crime was nostalgia for a lost time of respectability. But he was right that the motives and the circumstances of serious crimes can tell us something notable and otherwise elusive about their time. The criminal proceeds along a familiar road from the crime scene ultimately to prison or the gallows. But the moments of maximum drama take place at the trial, as his motives and neuroses are exposed.

The arena for that revelation has very often been Court Number One at the Old Bailey, which is the subject of a new book by Thomas Grant QC. He examines 11 trials across the 20th century, combining convictions and acquittals, and moving from prominent politicians like Jeremy Thorpe to small time crooks who were soon forgotten. They are linked by place – ‘a kind of national cockpit’ – and each one shows the reader something about its time.

Grant looks at the kinds of advocacy which work, and which do not. Melford Stevenson, later a High Court judge, defended Ruth Ellis, one of the last women to be hanged. He was unable to elicit a compelling account of the domestic violence and emotional abuse which had been the backdrop to the shooting of her wastrel lover, David Blakely, and which might have led a sympathetic jury to acquit her. The cross examination of Ellis by the prosecutor, Christmas Humphreys, provides a model of economy and impact – he asked Ellis one question, which she answered: ‘It is obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.’ Humphreys sat down. Ellis was hanged.

A more successful defence of a crime passionel concerned Marguerite Fahmy, a French adventuress who married a rich Egyptian princeling, Ali Fahmy Bey. In July 1923, eight months into a marriage that combined great opulence, public quarrels and private violence, they stayed at the Savoy Hotel. She accused him of beating her, and as their argument escalated, shot him three times in the back of the head. Sir Edward Marshall Hall’s defence saw her acquitted. His rhetoric is eye-catching to the contemporary reader – he said that in marrying ‘an Oriental’, she had made the greatest mistake a woman could make, and that she had become the victim of her husband’s eastern duplicity and sexual deviancy. A contemporary judge might have referred Marshall Hall to the Bar Standards Board for using racist language about the victim of a murder; Mr Justice Rigby Swift instead commented that it was ‘brilliantly eloquent’.

Perhaps the most bizarre vignette in this elegantly written, carefully researched book is the trial of Noel Pemberton Billing. He was an independent MP of militaristic and reactionary views who led the quasi-fascist Vigilantes Society, and used its magazine, The Imperialist, to criticise Lloyd George’s conduct of the First World War. He claimed to know of a black book in the possession of German military intelligence containing the names of 47,000 prominent, sexually deviant Britons, including the former Prime Minister HH Asquith – and also the judge in his trial, Mr Justice Darling. Billings alleged that the 47,000 had compromised the conduct of the war due to their German sympathies and also due to being blackmailed by a hidden hand of German conspirators. The book was never produced, and it almost certainly had no existence outside Billing’s overactive imagination. The trial took place in May and June 1918 as a last German offensive got far enough west to bombard Paris, and Billing broadcasted his anti-German and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Nonetheless he was acquitted of criminal libel amid widespread paranoia and anxiety about the war.

Reviewer John Jolliffe