Today I’m thrilled to be one of the stops on The Waxwork Corpse by Simon Michael blog tour. This book is the fifth in the ‘Charles Holborne’ legal thriller series, set in London in the 1960’s.
Unfortunately I haven’t had the time to read the book, but I’m loving the book description and I’m hoping to read it in the not to distance future as I do enjoy a legal thriller. So in the meantime I have a very intriguing extract from the book, but first the book description…
A deadly crime has been dragged to the surface…
Charles Holborne, maverick barrister, will never fit in at the Bar; he is too working-class, too Jewish and too dangerous.
But that makes him the perfect outsider to prosecute a shocking murder case which has already made its way to the press.
By chance, a body was found, dumped in a lake. It had clearly been there for some time, but the conditions in the water have meant that it was nearly perfectly preserved.
The police have managed to match this ‘waxwork corpse’ to a missing woman and if her husband — a senior judge — was the one who killed her, the scandal threatens to rock the British justice to its foundations.
The waxwork corpse is not the only thing to be raised from the past. The investigation also dredges up a violent mistake made by Charles in his youth which, if revealed, could put his own life at stake…
Charles Holborne needs a big breakfast.
The previous night he stayed up until the small hours smoking and drinking whisky, staring at the silent, glistening city streets below him and ruminating about Sally; specifically about where she was sleeping. And with whom.
Months after their breakup and the sale of their house in Hampstead, he still thinks about her, most days and every night. The nights are the worst, alone in the tiny apartment on Fetter Lane.
So a plateful of bacon, eggs, mushrooms and toast are now absorbing the remnants of the alcohol, and Charles is starting to feel human.
Listening with half an ear to John Arlott commentating on the first few overs of the test match, he reads again the newspaper report of his beloved West Ham becoming only the second British club ever to win a European trophy. They defeated Munich 2 – 0 in the European Cup Winners Cup at Wembley the previous night, and Charles is still cross he missed it. But for the trial that he expected to continue throughout this week, he’d certainly have bought tickets.
He clears up and, a couple of hours later than usual, leaves the flat. He dodges the stationary traffic in the junction with Fleet Street and ducks under the stone arch into Sergeants Inn. It’s barely 100 yards from his front door to the Temple, which, in normal circumstances, allows him to wake at seven o’clock, wash, eat a leisurely breakfast and still be at his desk in Chambers before eight.
Charles, now thirty-nine, is as broad as an ox, with enormously wide shoulders, great hams for arms and heavily-muscled legs, and there is a healing cut over his left eyebrow. He looks like a boxer, which is what he is — or was, until his last fight, a few months ago at the relatively late age of thirty-eight. He therefore looks slightly incongruous in a barrister’s regulation pinstriped three-piece suit under a light raincoat and battered hat. Slung over his left shoulder, in a red cloth bag closed with a white cord drawstring, are his court robes, and in his right hand he carries a briefcase with the papers from the previous day’s case.
The barred gate at the northern end of Kings Bench Walk is manned today by a young official in uniform, the polished buttons of his Inner Temple uniform gleaming in the weak sunshine.
‘Good morning, Mr Holborne,’ he says. ‘Not seen you for a while.’
‘Hello Jimmy,’ replies Charles.
Charles has known the lad since he first started working in the Temple almost a decade before. He was then employed to direct parking and pick up litter, but despite his difficult start in life (Charles knows he was sent to Borstal for a string of domestic burglaries committed as a juvenile) his cheery disposition and willingness to work hard had seen him promoted gradually through the ranks of Temple employees. Now in his mid-twenties, he’s being given greater responsibility.
Inn servants such as Jimmy are largely invisible to Charles’s colleagues. Charles, on the other hand, feels more at ease with them than he does the majority of his public school, Oxbridge-educated peers. Most of the minor functionaries in the service of the Law, the employees of the Inn, the clerks and the court staff — in short the people essential to the smooth functioning of the administration of justice — know of Charles. They know that the curly-haired Charles Holborne, Barrister at Law, started life as Charlie Horowitz, boxer and, it was rumoured, criminal. His oldest friends and associates include the Krays and others on the wrong side of the law. He’s a Jewish East End lad who had an outstanding war and “made good”, and they have a sense of proprietorial pride in him; he’s still one of them.
The feeling is mutual. Although Charles has tried to put the Krays and his law-breaking firmly behind him, he likes to pass the time of day with good honest East Enders who share his background and with whom he doesn’t have to maintain the cultivated sophistication so carefully grafted onto his Cockney roots.
Charles steps down into the Temple, and as he does so a sudden squall of rain blowing off the Thames hits him square in the face. It carries the familiar aromas of his past life as a lighterman: sea salt and effluence. Taking care on the slippery cobbles, he runs underneath the tall plane trees, their newly-emerged leaves being given an unnecessary shower, and turns the corner into Crown Office Row.
A few seconds later he is bounding up the old staircase into Chambers, creating little puffs of wood dust where his heavy tread lands on every second stair.
This has been Charles’s professional home for two years; since he was forced out of his previous chambers; since the murder of his wife; a wife who was, rather inconveniently, the daughter of the former head of those chambers.
He pushes open the door to the clerks’ room to find it as frenetic as ever. Barbara, the senior clerk, Chambers’ own Edinburgh headmistress, is conducting two calls at the same time, one phone in her hand and the other clamped to the other ear by a tweed shoulder. She looks up from the lesson in good manners being delivered to an unhelpful listing clerk and nods her welcome to Charles. Jennie and Jeremy, the symbiotic junior clerks known throughout the Temple compendiously as “JJ”, hover by the door, each with an armful of briefs to be distributed around Chambers. The last member of staff, Clive — a spotty, insouciant Cockney teenager who fills the function of office junior — appears to be elsewhere.
Three barristers juggle for positions by the pigeon-holes, skimming the miscellaneous papers received on existing cases, but in fact more interested in discovering if there might be any buried fees cheques.
‘Morning,’ says one, a pot-bellied, almost spherical, junior barrister named Knight.
‘Morning, Oliver,’ replies Charles.
A tall man with his back to Charles turns swiftly. ‘Ah, there you are, Holborne,’ he says angrily, the use of Charles’s surname signifying both formality and condescension.
‘Yes, Murray,’ replies Charles blandly, scanning his own post without looking up, but deliberately using the taller man’s first name.
Murray Dennison, Queen’s Counsel, has been a long-term thorn in Charles’s side, particularly since Charles’s practice took off. Dennison, jealous and ambitious in equal measure, and whose elevation to silk had yet to prove an unqualified success, takes Charles’s recent professional ascendancy as a personal insult. His antipathy to Charles’s working-class background, his religion, his success — in short, everything about him — had grown swiftly from arrogant antipathy to outright hatred. There’s nothing more likely to make a man hate you than his being discovered trying to cause you harm, thinks Charles. It is only a few months since Charles uncovered, and survived, Dennison’s plot to have him evicted from Chambers.
‘I assume those … people in the waiting room are your clients?’ says Dennison.
‘Mine?’ enquires Charles reasonably, in no mood for a fight. ‘I’m not expecting any.’
‘Well, they’re your lot, and they’re taking all the space. I’ve important clients arriving in half an hour.’
‘My “lot”?’ queries Charles, knowing exactly what Dennison means.
He slips out of the clerks’ room and looks through the open door to the waiting room. Sitting silently and uncomfortably on the couch and two of the chairs are four bearded men in dark suits and white shirts, all wearing skull-caps. They are unmistakeably orthodox Jews. Charles smiles and nods before withdrawing and returning to the clerks’ room.
‘Not my case; not my clients,’ he says shortly, making a final effort to avoid a confrontation.
‘Aren’t they Jews?’ says the taller man, narrowing his eyes and jutting his grey lantern jaw at Charles aggressively.
‘And because they’re Jews, they must be my clients?’ demands Charles, his temper slipping.
‘It’s not an unreasonable assumption.’
‘Accordingly, I should assume that, because you defended those two homosexuals last week, you must also be a sodomist?’ he replies with a dangerous smile. Charles knows this will provoke Dennison, a Catholic with traditional views on homosexuality.
‘Now, now, sir,’ intervenes Barbara, now off both telephone calls, ‘let’s not wind up Mr Dennison.’
Dennison approaches Charles threateningly, almost nose to nose. ‘I’ve just about had enough of you, barrow boy.’
Charles tugs his forelock and deliberately exaggerates his native Cockney accent. ‘Oh, guvnor, I’m ever so sorry if I forgot me place.’
That produces a suppressed snigger from Jeremy which serves only to increase Dennison’s fury, but before the QC can answer, Charles has switched to a thick Yiddish accent. ‘On the other hand, perhaps it’s because I’m one of the Chosen People?’
Dennison points his bony forefinger at Charles, grasping for an appropriate retort but apparently unable at that instant to decide which prejudice to pursue. He splutters for a moment, changes his mind and strides out of the room. Charles follows him to the door and calls down the corridor after him. ‘I’m so sorry you weren’t chosen, Murray.’
Dennison spins on his heel. ‘Why don’t you people go back where you came from?’
‘This is where I came from!’ shouts Charles back. ‘I can trace my English roots to 1492, Dennison. Can you?’ Charles turns to Barbara with a triumphant smile but finds her face stony.
‘You’re your own worst enemy, Mr Holborne,’ she says, shaking her head sadly.
‘Yes,’ replies Charles heavily. ‘So I’ve been told.’
‘What’re you staring at?’ Barbara says, turning on Jeremy, still by the door. ‘Go on, scoot!’ The young clerk scuttles out of the room. ‘And in case it improves your mood, sir,’ says Barbara to Charles sardonically, ‘I’ve just put a nice cheque in your pigeon-hole.’
‘That case from Fletchers, the two-handed rape at Aylesbury.’
‘They’ve cut you down, but not by much. Have a look at the breakdown and let me know if you want to appeal.’
Charles picks up the cheque and the other papers waiting for him and makes to leave the room.
‘Oh, by the way, sir,’ adds Barbara, ‘Clive took a call for you from a Mr Jones.’
‘Mr Jones was rather mysterious. He announced that he was new to the Met police prosecuting service and asked if you’d passed the Scotland Yard Test.’
‘And you told him that I had?’ Charles asks.
The “Scotland Yard Test” is essentially a list of barristers deemed fit to prosecute cases on behalf of the Metropolitan Police. Charles has now been instructed in several high-profile murder trials for the Crown, so it’s surprising the caller was unaware that he’s considered acceptable counsel.
‘Of course. I asked him if he had instructions for you but he seemed evasive; said he was very anxious to speak to you. Immediately. When I said you weren’t in yet, he refused to leave a number and said he’d call back at noon. He asked particularly that you’d be available to take his call.’
‘If he’s employed by the Met prosecuting service, why on earth didn’t he ask one of his colleagues if I was on the list?’
‘That’s what I thought. I did wonder if it wasn’t some sort of practical joke. And…’
‘Well, he sounded strange.’
Barbara shrugs and her smile has a trace of embarrassment. ‘He sounded like Bugs Bunny!’
Charles laughs. ‘Are you sure the call didn’t come from inside Chambers? This sounds like one of the junior barristers pulling your leg.’
Barbara pauses, thinking. ‘You know, I never thought of that. Maybe that’s all it was. No doubt we’ll find out soon.’
Charles climbs the stairs to the first floor where his room is situated. It is empty. Peter Bateman, his former pupil, is at court, and the third occupant of the room, a recent addition, is also absent. Charles has yet to meet her, but she represents the welcome face of change: Roberta Gough is a pupil barrister, the first woman pupil to be taken on by the set of barristers in its 150-year history.
Charles makes himself a cup of tea in the area laughingly referred to as the “upstairs kitchen” — a converted cupboard — and takes it to his desk.
His room isn’t large, but it’s well-lit and comfortable, housing three battered leather armchairs and a small coffee table as well as two leather-inlaid desks loaded with briefs and Miss Gough’s small, and still empty, desk tucked into a corner behind the door. What makes the room special to Charles is its view over the manicured lawns of the Inner Temple and thence across the Embankment to the River Thames. On more than one occasion Charles has returned from court to find a temporarily unemployed member of Chambers relaxing in one of the chairs, feet up on Charles’s desk, idly surveying the river traffic and the lawyers strolling the gardens.
Charles begins by opening his post. At noon precisely, the telephone rings.
‘Mr Jones for you, sir,’ says Barbara, and Charles, who knows his senior clerk very well, detects suppressed mirth in her voice.
‘Charles Holborne?’ asks a clear high-pitched voice.
‘Yes,’ replies Charles. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Are you available this afternoon, Mr Holborne?’
Charles smiles in recognition of Barbara’s characterisation of the voice. It’s not Bugs Bunny, but it is unusually high-pitched and, oddly for a solicitor practising in the Metropolis, Charles detects a definite North American accent.
‘Available for what?’
‘A conference in a criminal matter.’
‘For the prosecution, I assume.’
‘That is correct.’
‘Certainly. What’s the name of the case?’
‘I am sorry, but I can’t tell you that at present,’ replies the solicitor officiously.
‘Oh,’ says Charles. ‘Why on earth not?’
‘You’ll understand when we meet. Just call it “In the Matter of a Possible Prosecution”.’
‘Very well,’ replies Charles, curbing his curiosity. ‘When can you let me see the papers?’
‘I won’t be sending you any case papers. You’ll be instructed by myself and two police officers.’ Then Jones’s formality slips slightly. ‘Sorry about the mystery, Mr Holborne, but you’ll understand when we speak in person. I assure you, this is no joke.’
‘Very well,’ repeats Charles. ‘What time would be convenient to you?’
‘Your clerk said two o’clock.’
‘Fine. I’ll see you then.’
‘Good. One last thing: the matter is to be mentioned to no one at all. Both you and your senior clerk will be asked to sign the Official Secrets Act before anything of substance is discussed. Goodbye.’
Charles almost laughs as he hangs up. He wonders again if the entire conversation is a hoax. He’s never heard of a barrister being required to sign the Official Secrets Act before being instructed in a case. The whole idea is bizarre. He looks forward to the meeting, if it occurs at all, with interest.
- Paperback: 353 pages
- Publisher: Sapere Books (20 Dec. 2019)
Buying link: Amazon UK 🇬🇧
About the author
Simon Michael is the author of the best-selling London 1960s noir gangster series featuring his antihero barrister, Charles Holborne. Simon writes from personal experience: a barrister for 37 years, he worked in the Old Bailey and other criminal courts defending and prosecuting a wide selection of murderers, armed robbers, con artists and other assorted villainy. The 1960s was the Wild West of British justice, a time when the Krays, the Richardsons and other violent gangs fought for control of London’s organised crime, and the corrupt Metropolitan Police beat up suspects, twisted evidence and took a share of the criminal proceeds. Simon weaves into his thrillers real events of the time, the cases on which he worked and his unusual family history in the East End.
Simon was published here and in America in the 1980s and returned to writing when he retired from the law in 2016. The Charles Holborne series, The Brief, An Honest Man, The Lighterman, Corrupted and the latest, The Waxwork Corpse, have all garnered strong reviews for their authenticity and excitement.
Books in the series
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