Fans of the prolific Peter Murphy will welcome two new additions to his expanding catalogue. Both rattling good reads, each in a different way appeals to the lawyer in us.
Walden Back in Session like its predecessor is in effect a collection of connected short stories. Each is about a different trial, told through the view point of the resident judge, Charles Walden, at the fictional Bermondsey Crown Court. Charles is a marvellous character who throughout demonstrates a very grown-up worldliness in having to cope with the antics of those with a far narrower perspective. Whether or not he is the kind of judge Peter Murphy was, he is certainly the kind of judge Peter Murphy would want the courts to have.
The stories are told literally from the bench, facing whoever is in front of him. These include defendants with implausible defences to which juries nevertheless give credence, and advocates some of whom are not as bright as they should be: the doyen of the Bermondsey Bar rises ‘ponderously’ and tells ‘the multi-ethnic jury of the importance of keeping our borders secure’. Counsel also pushes at the boundaries of acceptable courtroom behaviour (and of hair colour). They normally get away with it.
"The cases vary from selling bootleg CDs (which leads to an unexpected concert) to a vicar who likes being whipped (not the worst of his behaviour) to a City banker who demanded money with menaces"
Then there are the civil servants, the ‘grey smoothies’ who are more interested in saving public money than they are in seeing justice being done. Their goal is to shut down the ‘uneconomic’ court building. Foiling this requires considerable finesse, and a vital input from a French judge with a predictably Gallic attitude about open marriages. ‘Whom the gods would destroy they first make you look like a total prat,’ Charles notes after one foolish question is asked of a witness. ‘The gods of advocacy deal you a blow in the courtroom like that sometimes, for most of us there is no easy or quick way to recover’. Although in that case, the barrister did.
The cases vary from selling bootleg CDs (which leads to an unexpected concert) to a vicar who likes being whipped (not the worst of his behaviour) to a City banker who demanded money with menaces from a former lover. When it is revealed that the latter, moneyed couple frequented a local nightclub, Charles’s reaction goes beyond what this means to the evidence in the case: ‘Until now we’ve thought of it as a bit downmarket, the scene of your typical Saturday night South London sexual encounters and drug deals. But we may have to revise our image. The Lagoon must be moving up in the world, and I’m wondering whether we might start to get a better class of work as a result. A few glamorous City cases wouldn’t go amiss.’
Walden is fully of happy endings but One Law for the Rest of Us is serious stuff. Although there are judges who preside over trials, the reader feels that they are down there in the well of the court, cheek by jowl with the lawyers and the prosecution witnesses. The hero of this series of novels is Ben Schroeder, a promising young Jewish criminal barrister who is now (the mid 1970s) happily married and prospering in the profession. Here though the more important character is his instructing solicitor, Julia, who is in a far better position to recognise an Establishment cover-up when she sees one.
If the book is about anyone it is Audrey Marshall, the alleged victim of sexual abuse in her school days which she now recalls through recovered memory following a similar allegation made to her from her young daughter. Her first person account, which includes graphic details of the abuse and the precise problems it has caused in her mature sexual life, is interspersed with the third person narrative of the Old Bailey trial of the perpetrator and its aftermath.
Through Audrey we get the viewpoint of the complainant: ‘I am not on trial. I must remember that. I am not on trial. I repeat the words Julia has whispered in my ear as a mantra, as the usher escorts me to court... The barristers you’ve had coffee with are now wearing wigs and gowns and grave expressions... there is another barrister, one you don’t know, whose job it is to tear you apart, to destroy you, if he can, nothing personal, he’s just doing his job, all part of the ritual.’ That other barrister is the odious, sexist Norris who lacks the insight to understand why no one wants to give him Silk.
As events unfold, and the Establishment/security service cover-up becomes plain, we are more in our 21st century world of long-suppressed allegations against famous people. The judge’s humane case management seems contemporary but the law on corroboration is appropriately period. The trial(s) rattle along at a good pace and in the end a form of justice is done.
Reviewer: David Wurtzel is a Bencher of Middle Temple and member of the Counsel Editorial Board.