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by Peter Murphy
No Exit, February 2013
320 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 1842436686

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In 1960 Cambridge, drunken hooliganism results in a death; the student primarily responsible, Clive Overton, escapes prosecution, but his father Miles sends him abroad and denies further contact. The action then moves to Bernard Wesley's QC's chambers in London two years later. Gaskell, a young barrister, agrees to act for an old girlfriend in a divorce case and against all the rules starts an affair with her. This becomes known to her husband's solicitor and barrister, Miles Overton, who exploits the situation to his client's advantage. Wesley must finesse the interests of various parties to extricate Gaskell and his chambers from exposure to scandal and ruin.

Any story featuring mid-twentieth century barristers has to bear comparison with a very strong forerunner: Rumpole. Henry Cecil also fished in these waters, but John Mortimer set a standard which is hard to match. Peter Murphy in A HIGHER DUTY does however weave a more complex plot, enabling him to sustain a full-length novel. This works well enough, although some of the characters portrayed are not altogether convincing. Clive starts off as a thoroughly horrible bully; the shock of his ouster might be expected to produce some reform but it is a surprise to find him quite so saintly thereafter. Likewise his father, a disciplinarian who provokes his wife's suicide and glories in the discomfiture of his professional opponents, becomes mild-mannered and easily manipulated when reconciliation with Clive is offered.

What some may find fascinating is the re-creation of a time and class consciousness which fifty years on would be hard to credit, if you hadn't lived through it. That women and Jews should suffer such discrimination seems incredible: the book has no blacks or overt homosexuals, who would have stood no chance at the bar at all. The casual assumption of superiority by the middle-classes portrayed here makes one cringe: that a skilled artisan should turn out to be a drunkard and a wife-beater is taken as only to be expected. The ease with which the old-boy network can be brought into use to ensure an 'appropriate' outcome, viz. one where the system can be manipulated to ensure a 'good chap' evades his just deserts, is quite breathtaking.

Whether this portrait is a fair one may be arguable, but certainly one needs to make a generous allowance for the times as depicted here to find the leading characters sympathetic. However, if you are unbothered about the upper middle-class smugly basking in their sense of superiority and enjoy a tale of political machinations in the legal profession, A HIGHER DUTY may be for you.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, January 2013

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