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Monday, 14 December 2020

‘Verbal’ by Peter Murphy

Published by No Exit Press,
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 Cathermole.

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

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 defense counsel at the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal. He lives with his wife, Chris, in Cambridgeshire.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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