When I read a review of this novel, published a couple of weeks ago, I knew I really had to read it.Why? Because it's a legal thriller, and that's a genre I really enjoy, whether in books (I love John Grisham), TV (huge fan of the sadly now defunct Good Wife) or film. I was not very well a couple of weeks ago and spent a lot of time on the sofa, reading, among other things, a couple of Grishams I hadn't encountered before, and this one looked as if it might fill an upcoming gap. So I was delighted when the publisher kindly whizzed me off a copy.
This is the first in a series of what's being called the Benson and De Vere novels - a TV series has already been commissioned, apparently. You can see the attraction at once when I tell you that William Benson is a barrister, but one with a difference. He was convicted of murder at the age of twenty-one and spent his years in prison studying law. A couple of years after his release, he was called to the Bar, but clients are not exactly flocking to his chambers, in a converted fishmongers' in a seedy part of London. Benson had always proclaimed his innocence, but changed his plea when it was clear that doing so was, ironically, the only way of getting permission to study.
At his trial sixteen years earlier, the only person who seemed to believe his innocence was a young trainee solicitor, nineteen-year-old Tess De Vere. The two meet again when Benson agrees to take on a case nobody else will touch, the defence of a young woman accused of murdering her boss. Tess has never forgotten their first brief but intense meeting and, though she now works for a high-powered London firm, she agrees to become his instructing solicitor.
Like Benson, Sarah Collinstone, the young woman accused, is absolutely adamant that she is innocent. But, like Benson, she is not believed. And indeed all the evidence is against her. The murder weapon has her DNA on it. She lies about her relationship with the victim and her previous knowledge of him. In fact as the trial goes on, more and more lies come to the surface. The prosecution barrister is brilliant, and really dislikes Benson. Tess, though whose eyes we watch the trial, is in despair - will Benson suffer an ignominious defeat?
The author of Summary Justice, writing under the name of John Fairfax, is actually William Broderick, who was a practicing barrister. Under his own name he is the author of an apparently popular series (of which I'd never heard) called the Father Anselm novels. So his knowledge of the law, and of the legal profession in general, is obviously spot on, and some of the most enjoyable parts of the novel for me were watching the ways in which Benson, who's obviously brilliant, manages to overturn apparently incontrovertible evidence and generally rout his enemies' arguments.
But of course any crime novel, or indeed series, is going to stand or fall by the quality of its main protagonists, and their relationship with each other. There's got to be some grit in the mix, and we certainly get it with Benson, clearly a deeply troubled man, the legacy of his fourteen years in prison and the experiences he had there proving hard to shake off. He's a bit of a dark horse to us and also to Tess. The two are undeniably drawn to each other but Benson is unwilling to take things further than a few relatively innocent conversations on board the houseboat he lives in. If he has secrets, he's not willing to share them with Tess. And Tess has a secret of her own. Having steadfastly believed all those years in Benson's innocence of the crime, she decides to try some investigation of her own. Can she prove his innocence? Or will she uncover uncomfortable facts she's rather not know about?
Well, it's easy to see that there's a rich vein of material to be explored in the forthcoming novels of this new series. Grisham it's not, and I had a few quibbles not worth mentioning, but I shall certainly be looking out for the next offering.