Summary Justice by John Fairfax
John Fairfax is a pen name for William Brodrick, who wrote the well-regarded Father Anselm mysteries. Brodrick was a practising barrister before giving up the law for becoming a writer, so I immediately had high hope for this new series of legal thrillers with a most fascinating pair of protagonists. It’s all about character building in this first outing for ‘Benson and De Vere’, the case, although crucial, is secondary.
Nineteen-year-old Tess de Vere first met philosophy student William Benson when she was on work experience, shadowing the defence of a case at the Old Bailey. Benson, twenty-one, was charged with the murder of a man after an upset in a pub. Benson swears he is innocent, and Tess believes him. However, with no-one to corroborate his alibi, Benson is sent down. In prison, Benson realises he has no chance of early parole unless he accepts the charge – innocent or not. He pleads guilty and serves eleven years, during which he uses his time to get a law degree and read as much case law as he can.
When he gets out, with a little help from his original defence lawyer and an anonymous benefactor, he manages to get enough bits and pieces to work the three years needed to set up a chambers on his own. No-one else will touch a convicted murder barrister with a barge-pole, so Congreve Chambers opens for business in a old fishmongers in Spitalfields, with ex-con Archie as his clerk. Those in power want to shut him down, and the family of the man he allegedly murdered still want revenge, so life isn’t easy for Benson.
Tess is now a successful lawyer, newly single and returned to London from a stint working on human rights in Strasbourg, when she hears about the new chambers in town with an ex-con barrister. She remembers the young man who swore his innocence to her. She’s looking for a new challenge, and makes contact just as Benson finally lands a case which could be the making of him. His client, is accused of killing her boss and lover, and with just four days until the trial begins, she sacked her legal team, leaving Benson and Tess as his intructing solicitor in a race for time to construct a defence case,
There are many parallels in the case of Sarah Collingstone and Benson’s own. Both have secrets, but we’ll have to wait to find out what Benson’s are. Secrets abound in the lives of Collingstone and her wealthy boss though and she doesn’t help herself by lying about her history and involvement with the boss of Hopton Transport. As the trial begins, Benson is, however, able to cast doubt on the previously-thought incontrovertible evidence – Collingstone’s DNA on the murder weapon. Those years in prison reading trial transcripts have enabled him to work out all the strategies he needs to give a great performance – will it be enough? These trial scenes are absolutely gripping, and we’re willing Benson on all the way.
Behind the scenes, Tess and Archie do some brilliant work at winkling out what really happened, Archie with the help of ‘The Tuesday Club’.
Tess frowned, so Archie explained, hitching baggy brown cords to sit on a large iron radiator. ‘It’s a private members-only club of highly skilled people… specialists in computers, business management, finance, forgery…’
Benson took over: ‘Discreet surveillance, background checks, home security.’
‘All sorts have joined,’ said Archie. ‘Doctors, dentists, street cleaners.’
‘Even fishmongers and students of philosophy.’
‘All unemployed. They meet every Tuesday to solve the world’s problems.’
Tess, smiling wryly, got the message…
Tess and Benson are brilliant creations – made for each other, although Fairfax wisely keeps romance out of the equation this time, but there is a definite tension there. Underlying everything is always the question of whether Benson is guilty or not guilty which gives another layer of suspense to the proceedings. Can Tess really trust him? Benson is damaged goods after those years in prison (we get some flashbacks between chapters), claustrophobic when doors are closed, seeing a therapist. He’s a bundle of contradictions and endlessly fascinating. Tess too has a big secret.
Doubtless, future additions to this series will start to reveal some of their back-stories. I’m really looking forward to finding out what really happened. (9/10)
Read Harriet’s thoughts on this book too.
Source: Review copy.
John Fairfax, Summary Justice (Little, Brown, 2017) Abacus paperback, 400 pages.