The Knife Went In: Real-life murders and our culture

Theodore Dalrymple

£16.99, Gibson Square Books

This book contains the reminiscences of a now retired prison doctor and hospital psychiatrist. He has worked extensively in this country and abroad, and often appeared as an expert in court. He has also phoned criminal defence solicitors to ask if they knew their client was mad and demolished the defences of those who feign insanity. His opinions are entertaining and valuable.

He writes of a topsy-turvy world where society considers that criminals are ill and therefore can be treated and even cured, while ill people are often ignored and untreated. Whether a person is admitted can depend on factors unrelated to the individual. Fewer beds mean they are less likely to be put in one. And the more frightening and difficult the patient is, the less likely they are to be treated. Doctors do not like difficult patients any more than lawyers like difficult clients.

There are plenty of anecdotes about experts or counsel making fools of themselves in court – so lots for solicitors to enjoy in this book.

Life in prison is described vividly. I learned a new expression – ‘black aspirin’ – as a way of treating inmates. This means kicking them –believe it or not. Dalrymple is an elegant writer who uses language well, including the argot of prisoners. He knows the expressions of the nick and challenges euphemisms and clichés, such as serving time and debt to society. He also advises on how you can get an operation on the NHS within weeks – be a prisoner – and how to deal with being arrested in third world countries (from his own experience).

The system is inefficient and expensive, which applies equally to court, prison or hospital. This book invites challenging questions about what we do with offenders. I particularly enjoyed the asides on how to tell counsel and solicitors apart by their shoes – and why coroners’ juries are better dressed than criminal juries.

Perhaps we need a solicitor’s insight into the medical profession, but until we get that this is a witty, elegant read.

David Pickup is a partner at Pickup & Scott Solicitors, Aylesbury