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Summary Justice by John Fairfax

A bonus of working in the fiction subgenre known as the legal thriller is that a good story can be wrought from almost anything, and the lay reader won’t know if you’re defying real legislation or courtroom protocol. I have no idea if the premise of John Fairfax’s Summary Justice would hold up outside a library or bookstore, but it’s a sharp hook: the protagonist William Benson is now a criminal defence lawyer after serving an 11-year term for murdering a man he scuffled with in a London bar.

Benson’s qualifications are manifestations of promises made to Tess de Vere, an Oxford undergraduate who assisted in his defence; were financed by an anonymous benefactor; and are universally opposed by members of the profession and every Benson acquaintance save Archie Congreve, another ex-con, who gives Benson the premises to open his own chambers.

The first, historical murder, recounted in an artfully elliptical piece of exposition, takes a back seat to the event which restores Benson to the courtroom. Sarah Collingstone is charged with the murder of Andrew Bealing, a wealthy transport company owner who employed her as a store manager for his charity serving children with disabilities. Sarah’s son Daniel is profoundly brain-damaged and needs constant care from his mother and grandfather.

Sarah is adamant about her innocence, but there is DNA evidence to suffocate any hope of reasonable doubt – until Benson gets to work. His imposing courtroom examinations, with surgical deconstruction of the well-rehearsed statements of prosecution witnesses, make for the novel’s most effective scenes, save one sequence in which an otherwise dauntless eyewitness exhibits implausible humility in retracting part of her testimony.

Rising to the top is one chilling truth, that a verdict returned according to the evidence can still be the wrong one, and the trauma of Benson’s lost life isn’t revived by his battle to save Sarah, because it never abated. Fairfax tapdances upon some of the horrors contained within the murderers’ wings of Her Majesty’s Prison, but knows he needn’t linger – the story of Benson’s cellmate Needles is all the reminder necessary that one doesn’t have to leave this earthly life to enter hell.

Summary Justice’s sweeping ambition is bound within a tight frame. It aims to be a courtroom procedural, a double murder mystery and an intimate personal drama, and succeeds on the first two fronts. To his credit and the novel’s benefit, Fairfax follows the rule set by other solid legal thrillers – the works of Scott Turow, the best of John Grisham – by refusing to relinquish every answer and insisting that the reader think.

It is finely threaded with almost unbearable poignancy, as Benson staunchly withstands the degradations meted out by neighbours and passersby who deem him unworthy to be among them. In that respect, the novel bears a resemblance to Graeme Macrae Burnett’s Man Booker-shortlisted His Bloody Project, which likewise tracked a reverse timeline toward the origins of a crime, and created a sympathetic figure in a space where compassion had been lost.

Previously reviewed on

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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