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Monday 3 December 2018

Peter Murphy


Radmila May talks with Peter Murphy

Peter Murphy was born in 1946. After graduating from Cambridge University, he spent a career in the law, as an advocate and teacher, both in England and the United States.
His legal work included a number of years in The Hague as defence counsel at the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal.
He lives with his wife, Chris, in Cambridgeshire.

Radmila: Tell us about your career before you became a crime writer.
Peter: My day job was as a lawyer.  I graduated from Cambridge University and then became a barrister in 1968.  I practised for several years in London, before an opportunity came my way in 1980 to work in the
United States.  For most of that time I was a professor at a law school in Texas, but I also had a limited practice.  In 1998 a former student introduced me to the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where I practised for almost a decade. In the wake of this experience I returned to England as a judge of the Crown Court and retired in 2015.

Radmila: This must have been both interesting and highly demanding. So why did you subsequently turn to crime writing?
Peter: It wasn’t really ‘subsequently’.  I started writing fiction in the mid-1980s.  At that time I didn’t set out to write crime fiction.  My first project was to tell a story about the racial and gender prejudice I’d witnessed first hand at the English Bar in the 1960s.  I was living in the US when I began to write, so my target audience was American.  This resulted in A Higher Duty, which ultimately became the first in my Ben Schroeder series, but not until years later, after I was back in England.  All I got in the US were rejection letters!  In fact, it wasn’t even the first book to be published after my return.  My first was Removal, a novel about the US presidency inspired by the attempt to impeach President Clinton, which was written in the same general period as A Higher Duty, and also rejected at the time!  When I returned to England I submitted Removal to Ion Mills of No Exit Press.  He really liked the story and published it in 2011.  He then read and also liked A Higher Duty, published in the following year. In fact, it was Ion who suggested that A Higher Duty should be the start of a crime series featuring Ben Schroeder.  In all honesty, I didn’t see it as a crime novel, and Ben was by no means the leading character as I had first written it. But I accepted Ion’s suggestion, rewrote it to give Ben more prominence, and the series then turned towards crime, albeit from the legal point of view, rather than that of the police.

Radmila: To what extent is your fiction writing informed by your previous career?
Peter: To a considerable extent.  Most authors agree that it’s best to write about what you know, so those authors who have experience of police work, military service, medicine, forensic science, the law, and other
specialised subjects tend to write about them.  That’s why I began the
Ben Schroeder series in London in the early 1960s, a few years before I went to the Bar myself.  Ben has now progressed to the mid-1970s, but it’s still a period I knew as a barrister.  Writing about a period and a profession I know enables me to write more authentically.  More recently, I have published two volumes of humorous short stories, Walden of Bermondsey, and Judge Walden: Back in Session, the hero of which is Charlie Walden, resident judge at the fictitious Bermondsey Crown Court.  This is based very much on my own experience as a judge, and indeed as a resident judge. 

Radmila: You began with your Ben Schroeder series set in the 1950s/1960s. Why did you choose that period? Tell us about Ben and what motivates him in his attitude to cases.
Peter: Ben actually begins his practice in 1963.  This is a few years earlier than I myself began, but I wanted to set the book in the early sixties for a number of reasons, mainly, as I said above, to illustrate the prejudices that existed at the Bar at that time.  Fortuitously, when we decided to make Ben the protagonist in a series of crime stories, it enabled me to deal with some historical topics that interested me: capital punishment (A Matter for the Jury); the Cambridge Spies (And is there Honey still for Tea?); terrorism in Wales (The Heirs of Owain Gkyndwr); and a judge whose gambling addiction takes over his life while he is trying a murder case (Calling Down the Storm).  The latest (One Law for the Rest of Us) to be published in December 2018, deals with the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the mid-1970s.  This, by the way, as the subject matter suggests, is a far darker book and contains a lot of very bad language and graphic sexual scenes – so I’m sure everyone will want to order it without delay!  Ben is motivated by two main things: to prove himself in a profession that tried its best to discriminate against him because of his Jewish heritage and his education at the ‘wrong’ school and university; and to use his talents to fight for his clients to the best of his ability in the courtroom.

Radmila:           Now you have also the Judge Walden series, set in the present-day, featuring Judge Walden, resident judge at the fictitious Bermondsey Crown Court, with his three fellow-judges. Why did you decide to have an alternative series?
Peter:                 It’s not really an alternative series.  Walden is very different to the Ben Schroeder series.  The Walden books have been described as humorous crime fiction, and in fact Back in Session topped the Kindle list in that category for some time.  But again, I didn’t set out to write crime fiction!  Of course, as the action takes place in a Crown Court, there is inevitably courtroom drama around a criminal prosecution.  But Walden started from a desire to write in a satirical vein about a resident judge, and in particular his struggles with the civil servants who run the court service (whom I call the ‘Grey Smoothies’).  The resident judge at any Crown Court is the judge who has overall responsibility for all the judicial aspects of the court’s work, so he or she is in the front line when it comes to funding and resources.  Much of my writing is based on my own experience of being a resident judge, and it mirrors the extraordinary damage done by the real-life Grey Smoothies to a legal system that was once the envy of the world.  Years of government cuts: cuts to legal aid, cuts to the courts and their staff; cuts to the Crown Prosecution Service, cuts affecting judges themselves, have brought the court system to its knees.  Even if austerity is really going to end now, the damage already done is irreparable and permanent.  Currently, the government can’t recruit enough qualified candidates to apply for judgeships, most of the experienced court staff have gone, too many courts have been closed, and morale among lawyers is at a disastrously low level.  People are at a greater risk of suffering injustice now than at any time since the nineteenth century.  Unlike the ‘Secret Barrister’ I have chosen a humorous and satirical approach to this very serious subject.  I think Charlie Walden has something of my own sense of humour, and he shares my sense of why his job is important, and why it’s worth fighting to make sure justice is done in the court system.  So, I don’t see it as crime fiction, certainly not in the usual sense, but as long as readers enjoy the books I’m not too concerned about how people classify them!  There is a second theme to Walden, too.  Many readers will remember John Mortimer’s wonderful Rumpole of the Bailey stories.  I knew Mortimer slightly when I started at the Bar, and I’ve always been a huge Rumpole fan.  So Walden is also intended as an homage to Rumpole, and tries to answer the question: what would have Horace Rumpole been like as a judge?  Well, of course, Rumpole would never have agreed to become a judge – but that doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it, and there is more than a trace of Horace Rumpole in Charlie Walden!

Radmila: Unlike most crime novels which end with the unmasking of the perpetrator, your novels contain lengthy scenes from the course of the trial - examination, cross-examination etc. Would you say that this enhances your novels by making them more realistic?
Peter: I think so!  Some reviewers have disagreed, and I’m sure there are some readers who would prefer me to write simpler stories.  There are many writers who are happy to write in that way and some do so very well; but I’m not one of them.  For me, authenticity is important.  So many courtroom scenes in novels and in film/TV are so brief and simplistic that you can’t really follow the sequence of events at all (e.g. Law and Order UK); and some are so shockingly unrealistic that they become funny for all the wrong reasons (e.g. Judge John Deed).  In fairness, it’s not easy to write good courtroom scenes, and even accomplished writers such as John Grisham sometimes have problems with them, so I’m not going to claim that mine couldn’t be improved on: on the contrary, I’m sure they could!  I think some writers shy away from dealing with the law in case it confuses readers or viewers, but I prefer to give my readers credit for being willing to stay with me while I describe what would actually go on in court, and what the issues before the judge and jury are.  To my mind it makes for a more satisfying read.  It’s also interesting that the Ben Schroeder books now qualify as historical novels (at least the earlier books) and this gives me an added responsibility, as I see it, to be as authentic as I can.  Again, I’m living with this dilemma.  I’m enjoying some success as a crime fiction writer, but I haven’t yet learned to think of myself as such, or at least not principally as a crime writer!

Radmila: For you, when you write, which comes first, plot or character? And do you plan in detail in advance, start with an idea and go on from there, or something in between?
Peter: Writing a novel is a long and complex task, and there’s no way to describe it briefly.  But on my website ( I offer some basic suggestions that you can download if you are
contemplating undertaking it.   To answer the question: there’s no set rule for me as to which comes first, plot or character. Actually, they tend to come together, in the sense that one suggests the other, and both are essential.  But planning and research are also essential – before you ever start writing.  Most people, if pressed, will tell you that they have an idea for a novel, and they probably do.  If you’re naturally creative, you probably have ideas passing through your mind the whole time.  But for a novel, you need an idea strong enough to carry the reader through 300-400 pages, and most ideas aren’t that strong.  You can combine more than one idea to produce multiple story lines, and some authors, myself included, have done that successfully; but the sum total has to be strong enough.  You must have a clear idea of what your story is and how it will develop, before you begin to write, and there will be some research you will have to do.  So you need to begin by producing a detailed synopsis, or outline, of 10-15 pages, which summarises the book and introduces both your plot and your characters. 
Don’t start to write until you’ve completed your preparation and have your outline complete. If you do, your writing won’t go well, and you will inevitably have to go back over it.

Of course, an outline is an outline, not a straitjacket.  You don’t need to know everything that’s going to happen in the book when you start. You don’t necessarily even have to know how the book ends.  The characters may surprise you, doing things you didn’t think them capable of, or reacting to events in an unexpected way.  Sometimes they will make suggestions to you about the plot as the book goes along. Be flexible.  I was about three quarters of the way through Removal before I knew how it would end.  I was starting to worry about it.  But my heroine, FBI Agent Kelly Smith, told me one day how she was going to break through the seemingly impossible deadlock I had created and bring about a resolution.  (No, I’m not psychotic: I don’t hear voices; but if you have well-drawn characters they will in a sense speak to you.  Listen to them.)  I wrote the ending Kelly proposed, and it worked beautifully.  So don’t panic if some developments come to you as the book is being written. A book in progress should be an organic thing.  If it changes, and as long as you feel good about the changes, rewrite your outline a bit and go with the flow.

Radmila: A great deal of attention has been drawn recently to the parlous state of the criminal justice system, by books such as The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how it is Broken, and by statements by public figures like Alison Saunders, the soon-to-retire Director of Public Prosecutions. What are your own feelings about this? For instance, do you use the comic Grey Smoothies (civil servants from the Ministry of Justice) in the Judge Walden titles to make a serious point about cuts to the criminal justice system?
Peter: I think I probably answered this in question 5.  The basic answer is: yes, I’m very serious about it.  I use a format different from that of the Secret Barrister, but we are both addressing the same issues.  As to my own feelings about what is going on, I am distressed and disturbed at how quickly the rule of law can be threatened and undermined in a supposedly democratic society.  A good recent example is the potential miscarriages of justice caused by the prosecution’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defence, a direct result of the savage cuts to staffing levels in the Crown Prosecution Service.

Radmila: You have another Ben Schroeder title about to be published, and I think there will soon be another Judge Walden title. Tell us a little about both.
Peter: Yes.  The next Ben Schroeder is One Law for the Rest of Us, to be published on 13 December 2018.  The Ben Schroeder series has always been based on subjects I’ve wanted to write about.  The subject of One Law, though not very pleasant, is all around us and isn’t going away, and I have felt compelled to deal with it.  Like almost all Crown Court judges I tried a huge number of historic sex cases while on the Bench, and One Law was inspired by three such cases. The story revolves around two generations of child sexual abuse at a Church boarding school, and the efforts of the authorities to cover the abuse up in the 1970s when one of the victims is determined to bring it to light.  As I said earlier, it is a dark book; it contains a lot of very bad language and graphic sexual scenes. I expect most readers will take this in their stride and will agree with me that there is no honest way to avoid it when writing about this subject.  I recognise that some readers may be offended or deterred, but I offer no apology.  Child sexual abuse is an ongoing, as well as a historical pervasive scourge on our society, and it must be dragged into the light if we are ever to bring it to an end.

The next book in the Walden series is Judge Walden: Call the Next Case.  I’ve completed and submitted it to No Exit, and we are planning to publish next year, but no date has been decided on yet.  These are more stories in the same vein as those in the first two books, and I hope I’ve kept the level of humour up where it needs to be.  The readers will be the judges of that, but if it’s as well received as the first two volumes, I will be very happy!

Radmila: I see from your website that your Judge Walden series has been optioned for TV. How do you feel about that?
Peter: It is very exciting.  The TV and film rights for the entire Walden series have been optioned by Alistair Maclean-Clark of AMC pictures.  Alistair has enormous experience in TV.  He worked for Disney for many years and set up their European TV channels, so he is well equipped for this role.  We are just making a start on trying to sell the series to a TV company, or group of companies.  It’s very hit and miss, a matter of being in the right place at the right time, so there’s no way to know in advance what the chances of success are.  But it’s been a extraordinary education for me: writing ‘pitch’ documents, imagining actors in different roles, coming up with sales strategies, tackling questions such as diversity which are, rightly, of such importance now.  Whatever happens, it’s been an entry into a new and fascinating world, and I’m enjoying every moment of it!
In conclusion: thank you for asking me to interview!

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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