Summary Justice by John Fairfax

The Blurb On The Back:

The last time Tess de Vere saw William Benson she was a law student on work experience.  He was a twenty-one-year-old, led from the dock of the Old Bailey to begin a life sentence for murder.  He’d said he was innocent.  She’s believed him.

Sixteen years later, Tess overhears a couple of hacks mocking a newcomer to the London Bar, a no-hoper with a murder conviction, running his own show from an old fishmonger’s in Spitalfields.  That night she walks back into Benson’s life.  The price of his rehabilitation – and access to the Bar – is an admission of guilt to the killing of Paul Harebeton, whose family have vowed revenge.  He’s an outcast.  The government wants to shut him down and no solicitor will instruct him.  But he’s subsidised by a mysterious benefactor ad a desperate woman has turned to him for help: Sarah Collingstone, mother of a child with special needs, accused of slaying her wealthy lover.  It’s a hopeless case and the murder trial, Benson’s first, starts in four days.  The evidence is overwhelming but, like Benson long ago, she swears she’s innocent.  Tess joins the defence team, determined to help Benson survive.  But as Benson follows the twists and turns in the courtroom, Tess embarks upon a secret investigation of her own, determined to uncover the truth behind the death of Paul Harebeton on a lonely night in Soho.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

July 1999.  Tess de Vere is a law student at Oxford University shadowing Helen Camberley QC, a criminal law barrister defending 21-year-old William Benson (a philosophy student) who’s charged with the murder of Paul Harbeton (a hospital porter and care home volunteer) after the two were in a fight in a London pub.  Benson has always pleaded his innocence and the case against him is strongly circumstantial but the jury find him guilty and he’s sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 11 years.

16 years later.  Tess is a successful human rights lawyer currently working as a consultant with the firm Coker & Dale following a stint working in Luxembourg.  While having lunch with a colleague she hears about a convicted murderer who’s set up practice as a criminal barrister in Spitalfields.  The barrister is Benson who’s fought against the odds and taken on the defence of Sarah Collingstone, the single mother of a son with special needs who’s accused of murdering her wealthy lover Andrew Bealing after he refuse to leave his wife for her.  Collingstone protests her innocence despite overwhelming evidence and Benson believes her.

Intrigued by how far Benson has come and convinced that he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, Tess decides to join Benson’s team and is soon caught up in exposing mistakes in the investigation of Bealing’s murder.  But the closer she gets to Benson, the more convinced she is that he was wrongly convicted and so she decides to go over the facts of his conviction but doing so means delving into Paul Harbeton’s past and what really happened when he and Benson met all those years ago …

John Fairfax’s (the pen name of William Brodrick) legal thriller (the first in a new series) is an interesting and engrossing affair with a mysterious and soulful protagonist who may or may not be a murderer and a female lead with her own mysterious past coupled with a genuinely twisty murder mystery and a motley crew of ex-lags able to contribute their expertise, which all combines to give this series a lot of promise.

William Benson is an intriguing character – intelligent, determined and passionate about what he does but also suffering from anxiety by his experiences in prison, which have also given him a series of skills and insights that make him such a good barrister.  It seems that the first few books in this series will hinge on the question of whether or not he is guilty of Harbeton’s murder with Fairfax clearly having a lot of fun in playing with people’s assumptions and the normal tropes as he teases out details of Benson and Harbeton’s past.  A big part of why this works is because he wisely shows this through Tess’s eyes – like the reader she wants to believe in Benson’s innocence not least because Harbeton’s family are carrying out an intimidation campaign against him involving both physical violence and an on-line petition to stop him practicing as a barrister – and so as new facts emerge, both Tess and the reader begin to question their assumptions.

Tess herself has a mysterious past with Fairfax hinting at a bad romance with another lawyer, which I look forward to seeing developed.  I enjoyed her determination even though she is for large parts of the book a foil to Benson’s brilliance.  I wanted to see more of her friendship with Sally Martindale, who acts as a sounding board but has insights of her own on Tess’s character.

Although there’s an obligatory will they/won’t they element to Benson and Tess’s relationship, I actually found Benson’s relationship with Archie (a fellow ex-convict who now serves as his clerk) to be more interesting, especially through the pairs’ membership of The Tuesday Club of ex-cons who offer all kinds of insights and research opportunities and who I really want to see more of.

The Collingstone case held my interest, not least because of the way Benson sets about unpicking the apparently damning evidence against her.  I enjoyed the depiction of Sally’s relationship with her son and father and the way Fairfax ties that in with Benson’s own family history and there are plenty of other suspects and red herrings as the truth slowly emerges.

All in all there was more than enough here to keep me turning the pages and there’s clearly a lot of potential with this series, such that I will definitely be reading on.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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