£8.99, Melrose Books
James Stewart is a retired judge who now writes crime fiction – and he has chosen to write about what he knows. Despite the title, which references a brutal although fairly swift killing, much of the book is devoted to the ensuing court case. This makes for an interesting read for lawyers, but there is a question mark over whether or not this would translate to a wider readership. As this is the second novel from Stewart, it may well do so.
Unexpectedly, this is not a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘can we prove he dunnit’. The twists relate to what is going on behind the scenes as hard-working coppers and prosecutors see their efforts potentially go unrewarded when the security services intervene. Avoiding spoilers, the climax is unusually ambiguous, no doubt reflecting the real world of dispensing legal justice through a jury system.
The murderous element of the plot is a little undermined by the efficiency and coyness of the violence, and the speed of apprehension – a crime novel with a large knife on the cover, dripping in blood, might justifiably have provided more in the way of macabre interludes.
Although a large cast is handled well, there is little attempt to emotionally flesh out the characters: a survivor of a sex attack is ‘distraught’ but ‘strong’, while other characters are largely identified or defined by their jobs.
Yet the novel’s intriguing USP is not the straight-forward plotting but the reflection of the inner workings of a courtroom during a murder trial which, given Stewart’s 30-plus years of experience, the reader can presumably take as at least indicative of what really goes on (even permitting for creative licence). A parallel and rather underdeveloped arc sees a shadowy representative of a branch of government try to pass influential notes to the judge – an action which feels like it might be the genuine article.
It is always inspiring to read the fiction of lawyers and to see how an ingrained capacity for research and reporting translates into narrative.
Slaughter is worth reading for its ‘in the know’, blow-by-blow account of an elaborate murder trial.
Tom Garbett is a solicitor