Fans of Judge Peter Murphy’s A Higher Duty wondered which of the array of characters he would particularly take forward into the much anticipated sequel. Fortunately it has turned out to be Ben Schroeder, the brilliant young man from the Jewish East End fur trade family who have nicknamed him “Viceroy”, after Rufus Isaacs, the most famous Jewish barrister and who (this being the 1960s) had been the only Jewish Lord Chief Justice as well as Viceroy of India. Whatever else can be said about Ben, his suits needless to say are immaculately well tailored. That, however, is not Ben’s worry. His “darkest fears” are that he will not “belong to the barristers’ club”. The novel takes place in 1964.
I was Called 10 years after that and can indeed recall barristers seeing their Jewish colleagues as members of a separate club, with Jewish solicitors briefing “their own”.
Although Ben clearly feels the need to prove himself, his future looks bright. He is in good chambers, his Christian solicitors love him, and the judges recognise his precocious talents as an advocate. In the brilliantly written scene in the Court of Criminal Appeals, where the smell of wigs and old panelling nearly comes off the page, he almost persuades Lord Parker to accept his arguments.
The novel follows Ben’s career in two major cases. Same court (Huntingdon) and same solicitors, including bright, pretty Jess, the incipient love interest. In the first trial he represents a vicar charged with exposing himself to a 10-year-old boy in the vestry; in the main case he is led in defending a lock-keeper who allegedly attacked a courting couple, murdering the man and raping and nearly murdering the woman.
There are connecting elements here. The first is how little the lawyers know their own clients, who have private demons they won’t admit to and no one knows how to discover. Neither defendant has any insight on himself. Neither, for that matter, does leading counsel for the defence in the capital murder. Martin Hardcastle QC is brilliant, arrogant and an alcoholic. The passages describing how he sets about his drinking sessions are frighteningly real. Naturally he assumes he can get away with anything on grounds of sheer ego, including the odd day out of court while he sobers up, leaving his very junior junior to cross-examine the most important witness for the Crown. It is Ben, whose judgment never falters, who gets it right, but he is overruled in a crucial decision.
Would it have made any difference? It is the unanswerable question in any trial. This leads us on the title: the barristers do not decide, it is the jury who is entitled to find the guilty to be not guilty, and vice versa.
In A Higher Duty Peter Murphy wrote more about the barristers themselves. Here the spotlight is on the defendants, the witnesses, the judges, and even the hangman since this is 1964 and capital murder means what it says. “Real” people are portrayed as convincingly as the fictional. Some of the characters in the earlier book wait in the wings, modestly reminding the reader what happened to them last time, and no doubt anticipating a more starring role in the third volume to which we look forward.