Today I have the pleasure of interviewing Simon Michael the author of The Brief and An Honest Man. Unfortunately my review pile is in danger of toppling over, it’s that big! So I haven’t had the chance to read either of them, but from the book descriptions they certainly sound like the type of books I would enjoy, so rest assured they will certainly be added to my ever growing TBR pile. In the meantime here’s my interview with Simon Michael, and if the interview piques your interest I’ve included the buying links further down the post
Hi Simon and welcome to the book review café, there’s a lot of crime thrillers out there. Why should readers read your Charles Holborne series?
Wow – talk about getting right to the point! That’s a bit like a boxer landing a great punch as soon as the bell’s gone for the first round. I think I’ve discovered a new genre of crime writing – the barrister procedural. There are hundreds of authors writing police procedurals and psychological thrillers, but those elements have never been tackled from the point of view of further down the criminal justice line, in court. The search for the truth by the police is not the end of the story – in fact it’s only the beginning. The real search for truth occurs in court and, as for psychological thrills, anyone who’s ever been in a criminal court room – especially on serious cases like murder – knows it’s pure theatre – nail-biting, breath-holding drama. For a recent example, just look at Helen’s trial in the Archers.
Are the books courtroom dramas then?
Every book has scenes in court, but they take up a relatively small part of the action. The rules regarding evidence in the period I’m writing, the 1960s, were much more lax than they are today. The investigation process often continued after the accused was charged. I take the readers along for the ride, as the lawyers and the police put together the jigsaw of the case to present it to the jury. I use parts of real cases and sometimes real documents normally only seen by the police, the lawyers and the judges.
Is that why you date your books in the 1960s?
Partly. In many respects the 1960s were the “Wild West” in criminal justice, especially in the big cities like London, Birmingham and Liverpool. Huge swathes of the police force were completely corrupt; they took bribes, worked hand-in-hand with criminals, and suppressed and manufactured evidence. The Dirty Squad (the name by which the Obscene Publications Squad was known) was, to a man, in the pay of the Soho pornographers, right up to the detective chief superintendent at its head. They actually negotiated a licence fee from the pornographers, the very people they should have been shutting down, to allow them to keep operating. And some of my clients were beaten into confessions or threatened that their children would be taken into care, to keep the truth from coming out. On the other hand, big gangs like the Krays and Richardsons controlled the streets with terrifying violence. London was beginning to look like Chicago in the 1930s, with an unholy alliance between organised crime bosses and the police.
So placing my hero, Charles Holborne, in London in the 1960s presents him with challenges which don’t exist today. Make him morally ambivalent – he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in the East End, was a boxer and was himself in trouble with the law as a youngster – and the dynamic becomes even more interesting. Add in the racial, religious and class prejudice that existed in those days, the post-war liberalisation in social mores – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – and you have a perfect mix.
Does that give you problems with research? I know you were a barrister for a long time, but I don’t think you’re old enough to have been in practice in the 1960s.
No, you’re right, although I was alive at the time, I was still in short trousers! Things were beginning to change when I started at the Bar, but not by much. So some of the background comes easily. I know exactly what the cells of the Old Bailey smell like; I remember how shabby the court buildings were; I have personal experience of corrupt police officers manufacturing evidence against my clients; and I experienced prejudice myself in the early days of my career. But I do have to take great care to ensure that other facts are right. The series seems to appeal to a lot of younger readers but a good part of the readership are old police officers and lawyers like me! And they’re the first to send an email saying “I loved the book, but they didn’t build that court building till five years after that scene!”
Having read some of the reviews, people seem to like Charles Holborne’s character, but several female reviewers want to give him a proper slap!
Yes, he is a bit of a dinosaur, a man of his times. I’m aware of the risk that if Charles were to be portrayed as a typical man born in 1925 he’d probably be quite unlikeable. It was a time of casual prejudice, not least against women. I think the trick is to write strong other characters, like the women in Charles’s life, who can pull him up so he can learn and grow. I hope readers will see changes in his attitude as the books progress.
I note that you spend more time dealing with your characters’ private lives than some other crime thriller writers.
I think that’s true. I’m afraid I’m a little impatient with some of the protagonists in crime thrillers. Some writers think that by throwing in a problem with alcohol, a divorce, a prickly relationship with a superior officer, they create a real protagonist. I think people are very complex and even those trying to do their best make mistakes in their relationships. Everyone’s a mixture of good and bad, so I try to show that. I deliberately intertwine the main threads of the crime thriller with the investigation, the court case and the problems facing the people involved. They all have their private lives and they bring those into their daily work. I try to create extremely stressful and difficult circumstances impacting on real people, and then see what those people do.
Are there more to come in the Charles Holborne series?
Definitely. The third and fourth are already part-written, and I know where the series will end.
So there will be a finite number of Charles Holborne books?
I think so. That’s real life, isn’t it? People grow and change and I see a definite arc of development for Charles with a conclusion. I don’t want the stories or the characters to become repetitive.
Well, I do have some ideas. In particular I am roughing out a stand-alone thriller set in New Orleans. But that’s at least three further novels down the line!
You’ve had two books published in the last year, and you have two more part-written? What explains this sudden burst of creativity?
I’ve only been able to do what I really love for the last 18 months or so, and full-time since March. Practice at the Bar is all-consuming and I frequently worked 16 hour days, 7 days a week. I have finally taken the plunge, given up the law and started doing what I always wanted to do. It’s been bottled up a long time!
Thank you Simon for popping by the book review for a chat and I wish you all the best for both books
About Simon Michael
Simon practised as a barrister for over 35 years, many of them spent prosecuting and defending murderers, armed robbers, con artists and other assorted villainy. He had several books published in the UK and the USA in the 1990s and his short story Split was shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan/Perrier Short Story Award.
In 2016 he retired completely from legal practice to devote himself to full- time writing. The Brief (September 2015) and An Honest Man (July 2016) published by Urbane Publications are the first two books in the Charles Holborne series, set on the gangland streets of 1960s London, and are based upon his experiences. Simon is a founder member and co-chair of the Ampthill Literary Festival. He lives with his wife, youngest daughter and many unfulfilled ambitions in Bedfordshire.
Description of The Brief
In the 60s London of gangsters, prejudice and terrifying gang wars, Barrister Charles Holborne spends his life dealing with the worst examples of violent criminality. After successfully winning a number of high profile cases, he is building a reputation among Soho’s criminal classes as a man who gets the job done, a reputation that doesn’t endear him to his establishment colleagues.
Yet Charles is not all he seems, and is battling both personal demons and his own past. When his philandering wife Henrietta is found with her throat slashed, Charles finds himself on the wrong side of the law and in serious trouble of the murderous kind. Arrested for her murder, can Charles discover the truth of her brutal slaying and escape the hangman’s noose?
Description of An Honest Man
Criminal barrister Charles Holborne may have just escaped the hangman by proving he was framed for murder, but his life is now in ruins. His wife is dead, his high-flying career has morphed into criminal notoriety, and bankruptcy threatens. When the biggest brief of Charles’s career unexpectedly lands on his desk, it looks as if he has been thrown a lifeline.
But far from keeping him afloat, it drags him ever deeper into the shadowy underworld of 1960s London. Now, not only is his practice at stake, but his very life. Can Charles extricate himself from a chess game played from the shadows by corrupt police officers and warring gangs without once again turning to crime himself?