Forced Confessions by John Fairfax
The opening quote “Your very silence is your confession”, from the classical writer Euripides paves the way for a tale of secrets, or rather,two tales.
I was a little confused at the start of this novel, a bit like walking into a room where everyone already knows everyone else, until I realised that this is the third volume about William Benson, convicted murderer, and criminal barrister. It follows “Summary Justice” and “Blind Defence”. Without the benefit of that background, I read very slowly and carefully for several chapters. Even after that, I struggled to remember who was who. Having come late to the party, so to speak, was part of the problem. I also found the narrative lacked descriptive detail that enabled me to visualise characters and places.
The third barrier that slowed my engagement with this narrative was the way in which William Benson’s personal story progresses alongside the court case at hand, so I was constantly relocating my perspective from one to the other.
And there are two stories: that of William Benson, whose conviction for murder and eleven years in prison despite his innocence means there are issues, personal and professional, in his subsequent career as a barrister; and that of a couple, the husband accused of murder and the wife with collusion in the crime, whom Benson is defending in the High Court.
Benson’s mentor, who defended him in his own murder trial, and supported him into law and his own practice, is dying. And Benson has taken on a new case for the defence. Benson is insightful and considered in his investigation, clever and skilful in his questioning and impressive in the courtroom. But as a person, he is a mess; troubled by his past, reclusive and isolated and detached but deeply distressed. Tess, his junior colleague, is quietly investigating the crime for which he was incarcerated. She is driven by her need to uncover the truth of the event which changed the course of Will Benson’s life as well as by an increasing attachment to him which, emotionally frozen, he is unable to return.
In the courtroom, Benson defends a married couple against charges of murder and collusion after a mysterious Spanish doctor is stabbed to death. The questioning of the clients and witnesses creates a gripping drama both in and out of the courtroom. Through twists and turns, and surprising revelations Benson not only successfully defends the charges but also arrives at the truth of the situation. This is not simply a case of a jealous husband, but of many secrets and also offers interesting insight into an aspect of recent Spanish history. This is a whodunnit in the best tradition.
The exposition of the truth for Benson and the real story behind his criminal conviction as a young man is also a fascinating story of secrets.
The earlier two novels about William Benson seem to follow the same pattern: a criminal court case alongside the unfolding of William Benson’s own story, past and present. I would recommend reading the novels in order to avoid my initial difficulty with this book. And while the story arrived at the truth of the matter in both the court case and William’s own past conviction, the ending gave a sense that there was another impending case to be defended before the courts and, just as importantly, still unresolved issues in the personal life of William Benson, criminal barrister. I will be looking out for the next in the series!
Reviewer: Clare Lyon