12 December 2020.
ISBN: 978-0-85730-424-7 (PB)
I do enjoy a good legal thriller. John Grisham, Steve Cavanagh, Scott Turow, John Fairfax: bring ’em on. And now there’s Peter Murphy. He must have been around for a few years given the size of his backlist, but he crossed my path a few days ago, and I was hooked well within the first fifty pages.
Verbal, the seventh title in his series featuring ace QC Ben Schroeder, is set in the early 1980s, when policing methods were very different, and the Met was still reeling from a major scandal which revealed root-and-branch corruption in its prestigious Flying Squad. The term verbal refers to the practice of putting words into a suspect’s mouth in place of seeking hard evidence to get a conviction: all too common before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.
The novel revolves around a bright young Cambridge graduate, Imogen Lester, accused of allowing her home to be used as a distribution centre for hard drugs: a charge she vehemently denies, despite the fact that her delinquent brother admits his own guilt. The prosecution’s case rests largely on words the arresting police officers allege Imogen spoke when they broke into her house in the small hours. Fortunately, she has good friends, and moves are soon in progress to prove her version of events.
The police corruption plot is complicated by national security issues; when the offence took place Imogen was in Yugoslavia, looking into the murder of her parents. She inadvertently became involved with another issue altogether, and it turns out the two-story threads are inextricably tangled.The courtroom scenes are lengthy and detailed, and in the hands of a less skilled storyteller could become tedious; more power to Peter Murphy, then, for ensuring that they don’t. This is partly down to his firm grasp on the differing personalities of his characters. Ben Schroeder, Imogen’s barrister, is perceptive, articulate and creative, whereas his opponent Anthony Norris is dour and disagreeable. Legal thrillers can stand or fall on the author’s ability to weave an absorbing story out of rather dry proceedings; this author succeeds in spades.
Outside the courtroom, there
is plenty going on to ring the changes, most of it related to the main
storyline: secret meetings, entrapment plots, behind-the-scenes business in
Ben’s chambers, Imogen’s relationship with her boss, top solicitor Julia
The result is a rich, complex
tale of organized crime and corruption, peopled by characters I wanted to cheer
or boo, and an ending that made me heave a sigh of relief that things have
moved on, but still leaving me aware that though some things change, human
nature doesn’t. Perhaps the police behave better; but there are still plenty of
bad guys who care only about lining their own pockets at huge non-monetary
expense to ordinary people. Thank goodness for writers of Peter Murphy’s
calibre, who let us escape to a world where at least some of those bad guys get
what’s coming to them.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick