In September 2013 a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court became internationally famous for his well reasoned and humane judgment on whether or not a defendant wearing the niqaab could give evidence without revealing her face. This was HH Peter Murphy, who shortly afterwards became the resident judge at Peterborough. Already a published thriller writer, his ‘retirement job’ began with a series of atmospheric legal thrillers set in the 1960s. They feature a very sympathetic hero, Ben Schroeder, an east end Jewish boy who makes it at the criminal Bar. Readers have enjoyed following Ben through his career over the following volumes.
With Walden of Bermondsey we are in different territory. Narrated by the resident judge of Bermondsey Crown Court, Charles Walden, it is in effect six short stories about life in a fictional crown court situated in a neighbourhood well known to the author. Charles is able to walk to work as his wife is conveniently the local vicar. Along the way, he buys his latte and sandwiches from a stall run by two salt-of-the-earth women with difficult husbands and grandchildren, and his copy of The Times from a newsagent who monologues about how the Labour Party hasn’t been the same since Hugh Gaitskell.
"Written robustly but with humanity, we are in no doubt of what Charles thinks of historic sexual offence trials or of parliamentary drafting or of the uselessness of sending former commercial QCs, now High Court judges, to try criminal trials"
Charles’s fellow judges are a virile Scot who feels that a punch up followed by a round of pints is all part of a man’s life in rugby; a sensible female commercial Silk and ‘super-mum’ who sits as a crown court judge as a career break; and a Garrick Club bore called Hubert. Lunch with them is ‘an oasis of calm in a desert of chaos.’ The court staff are brilliant. Less agreeable are the ‘Grey Smoothies’ from HMCTS, ie the ghastly young woman and a man who looks 14 years old, who starve the crumbling court of resources.
The stories deal with a range of cases including arson, sovereign immunity and running a brothel upstairs of a posh restaurant. The strength of the book is the picture we get of life in a crown court—not just the trials but the people and the huge amount of legal and personal detail which Peter manages to cram in with great charm. Doing justice has a broad definition. Luckily, information which is not contained in the court papers has a habit of fortuitously coming Charles’s way.
The book cover says: ‘If you enjoyed Rumpole of the Bailey, you’ll love Walden of Bermondsey.’ But there is a difference. Rumpole was a character created by John Mortimer. Charles Walden is a first person narrator resident judge. If he isn’t Peter Murphy, then there is at least no suggestion that we should do anything but approve of everything Charles says and does.
Written robustly but with humanity, we are in no doubt of what Charles thinks of historic sexual offence trials or of parliamentary drafting or of the uselessness of sending former commercial QCs, now High Court judges, to try criminal trials. There is the odd anomaly, when Charles tells his wife: ‘We are not allowed to cross-examine children any more, however many lies they tell.’ Actually, we are.
The language is the language lawyers use between one another (‘Chummy’ for the defendant; ‘Someone may have to stay after school if convicted.’) Characters include a joke Californian and a mad Russian who behave to stereotype. In general the innocent are acquitted and the guilty are convicted. Those who were foolish or who misbehaved do not escape unpunished whether or not they were not the ones in the dock. There is an open attitude to the Bar. One (male) prosecutor wears a suit which is too tight. As an advocate, he ‘may have been around a bit too long’. One robust defender habitually tries to get the witness to usurp the jury’s role and uses cross-examination as another closing speech. She gets away with it, as she knows she will. Generally Charles recognises that counsel have a difficult job to do.
The stories call out for being adapted for TV and with luck that will happen.
Reviewer: David Wurtzel