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Friday 16 July 2021

‘A Statue for Jacob’ by Peter Murphy

Published by Oldcastle Books,
5 July 2021.
ISBN: 978-0-85730-417-9 (PB)

What do you do when a court case you’re involved in fails to achieve the desired result? Simple, at least if you’re Peter Murphy. You turn it into fiction, where the outcome can be exactly what you wanted all along.

Murphy is a lawyer turned novelist, and he has put both areas of expertise to engrossing and provocative use in his latest work. Thirty years ago he consulted on a most unusual debt claim dating back two centuries to the American War of Independence. A rich landowner lent most of his fortune to George Washington to see his troops through a punishing winter, and was never repaid despite the government’s promises. As a direct consequence the landowner died in poverty, and some of his twentieth century descendants attempted to claim redress. Full repayment with interest would have bankrupted the USA, and the case was thrown out on a technicality. That’s the real-life story in a nutshell.

A Statue for Jacob takes the bones of that story and puts new flesh on them, in the form of lawyers Kiah Harmon for the plaintiff and Dave Petrosian for the US government. Kiah is approached by Samantha van Eyck with a request to look into a debt owed to her ancestor Jacob. The amount owed is eye-watering: hundreds of billions of dollars; and the only evidence Sam can offer is verbal family tradition handed down through the generations. Kiah’s imagination is fired, and she accepts the challenge.

What follows is a series of hurdles and barriers, some higher than others, as Kiah and her small team take on the might of the US Department of Justice. To achieve his objective, in fiction if not in real life, Murphy has created a cast of characters who would do justice (pun half-intended!) to one of the serious movies Hollywood produces from time to time. Kiah carries a huge weight of emotional baggage. Her Texan office manager Arlene is loud, candid and startlingly efficient. Dave Petrosian starts out as a run-of-the-mill government employee, but grows both in stature and ingenuity as the case progresses – and turns into an unexpected ally. Sam van Eyck is astute, intelligent and an excellent PR woman. And then there’s Aunt Meg, acknowledged as head of the family, and sharper at 90+ than most people half her age.

There are bad guys too. Jordan, Kiah’s controlling ex, reappears in circumstances which provoke Arlene to call him something I’d rather not repeat. Mary Jane Perrins, a less sympathetic van Eyck descendant, tries to steal the limelight. Assorted government hard men try to throw their weight around.

All this, and a competently handled tour of the American legal system and some obscure clauses of the Constitution, a boon for the uninitiated, as Kiah and her team hit the heights and the depths, and come out fighting every time.

Do they succeed in getting the debt repaid? Well, bearing in mind that this is fiction, but that bankrupting the USA probably isn’t a viable option, what do you think? But what matters here is the how, not the whether. And it all adds up to a fascinating, absorbing and at times gripping story about a battle between law and justice, which kept me up into the small hours more than once.

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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