Christmas book recommendations (2)

Posted on 23rd Dec 2011 in Reviews

The limitation period on festive gift buying is about to expire. File a claim for peace and goodwill before it’s too late! But if you can’t face the crush in the last minute bargain basement of your local department store, fear not. Help is at hand in the bookshop. And for those with e-readers and i-pads, what could be easier than the virtual gift of an e-book?

Fans of Gary Slapper’s column in the The Times will be familiar with the mixture of dry humour and jurisprudential erudition with which he compiles stories from around the world about the strange cases that somehow never make it into the law reports. In 2009 some of these were collected into a book of Weird Cases published by Wildy, Simmons & Hill, which has just been made available as an e-book. Now comes a second volume, More Weird Cases, also available as an e-book (from Wildy & Sons Ltd).

In this you can read about the gang member from Los Angeles whose exercise of the right to silence was unable to save him from conviction after it was found that he had “gone to the trouble of having a detailed picture of a murder he’d committed tattooed on to his chest”. The tattoo was used to identify him as the killer, helped by the fact that the liquor store where the murder took place had been carefully labelled in the image. Recounting this tale, from 2004, Slapper then segues effortlessly to 1888 and the story, taken from a novel by Sir Henry Rider Haggard, called Mrs Meeson’s Will.

In the novel, a dying man marooned on an island accepts the offer of a young woman, more likely than he to survive, to have his will tattooed onto her back. The woman herself is then “admitted to probate” to help validate the legacy to the dying man’s nephew.This knitting together of thematically linked material from different times and places is typical of Slapper’s urbane style as raconteur.

Alarming instances of violence against lawyers (recounted on pp 73 to 74) may not go down brilliantly with some beneficiaries of this book as a festive gift. No matter, they will entertain the non-lawyers. One is amused to find here one of the many tales concerning the barrister FE Smith (1872-1930) who, when he witnessed a man jostling a woman on a tram in Liverpool, stepped in and punched the brute so hard that he fell out and cracked his head, fatally, on the pavement. Smith’s legal career, following a fugitive period in Malta, did not apparently suffer; he is the subject of many colourful anecdotes and ended up as Lord Chancellor with the title Lord Birkenhead. (Brokenhead might have been more appropriate.)

So why the duck and the weed on the cover? You’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out. In fact, there’s a serious likelihood (on a balance of probabilities) that if you buy this book for a friend or family member, it will arrive in a second hand condition, after you’ve perused its contents in the course of trying to wrap it up.

Talking of the notorious advocate and orator FE Smith (see above), here is one of his most famous forensic riposts (taken from wikiquotes):

Judge: I’ve listened to you for an hour and I’m none wiser.
Smith: None the wiser, perhaps, my lord but certainly better informed.

If anyone embodies this spirit of adversarial defiance in fiction it has to be Horace Rumpole. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike have enjoyed the fictitious reminiscences of this noble curmudgeon, an “Old Bailey hack” whose advocacy on behalf of his clients often takes him well outside the walls of the courtroom, sleuthing for clues in the unlikeliest places. In Rumpole at Christmas, he learns crucial information to exonerate a client when taking another barrister’s children to the pantomime, and in another story he encounters a bogus Santa Claus who comes to a children’s party in chambers and attempts to rob the clerk’s room of all the brief fees belatedly sent in by instructing solicitors. Rumpole persuades the man of the error of his ways. But Rumpole is uneasy with yuletide frivolity:

I suppose what I have against Christmas Day is that the courts are all shut and no one is being tried for anything.”

Perhaps it’s also the fact that he has to spend more time with his wife, Hilda, otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed, who is not above her own FE Smith moments:

Do try and be serious, Rumpole. You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.”

But she’s wrong, and he is; and this book, a new paperback edition of a compilation of stories appearing in The Strand Magazine, Woman’s Weekly, the Independent, and other newspapers, is a choice morsel for that long doze after lunch when everyone else is walking the dog and fire needs just one more little log to help warm your port. Put it in your bundle of authorities.