Many of the nation’s most notorious trials have taken place at the intimidating Court Number One at the Old Bailey. In his excellent second book, barrister and author Thomas Grant offers detailed accounts of 11 of those cases, with protagonists ranging from the diabolical (Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Huntley) to the pathetic, including the Profumo patsy Stephen Ward and the unjustly executed Timothy Evans, stooge for 10 Rillington Place’s John Christie. There is plenty of humour throughout, not least from out-of-touch judges bewildered by “that Greek chap, clitoris”, but this is ultimately an affecting study of how the law gets it right – and wrong.
This book charts a sorry journey from Great War naivety — Lord Albemarle, hearing of an obscene libel trial in 1918, asked his chums at the Turf Club “Who’s this Greek chap Clitoris they’re all talking about?” — to the slumminess of mid-20th century Britain, riddled with damp and spy rings.
He is a master at conveying the cut-and-thrust of cross-examination, managing to maintain a sense of speed while making sure the reader does not miss the cultural or legal context. His style is drily witty, but just when you start to think he is a bit too detached from what are, after all, matters of life and death, he soars into a rhetorical flight; and although these can sometimes be a little cheesy or metaphor-mangling, they are happy evidence of the humanity behind Grant’s pawky exterior. At times the book is very moving, notably when he describes the trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and seems almost to be willing himself into the body of her barrister in order to offer a more competent defence.
Grant takes 11 of the most celebrated trials from the Old Bailey’s Court Number One, beginning with its opening in 1907, and retells their sensational stories. On the face of it, the book might look lurid... If you are looking for shocking or titillating details, you will find them... Some details are disturbing. Who knew that women were prepared for hanging with special canvas pants, to conceal any bleeding from their suddenly prolapsing wombs? Others are farcical, such as the revelations at the 1963 trial of the supposed spy Giuseppe Martelli... Grant’s humour is never gratuitous because it is deployed to bring the Old Bailey to life, which he does brilliantly... Above all, this book is not lurid because Grant is making a thoughtful point. A criminal trial, he argues, can be an “underground route into an understanding of the past”. By capturing intimate facts and individual voices, a trial can “capsize our sense of a period”. It can also shake up our sense of our own... The Old Bailey might be a Jacobean theatre, at times. But like this deceptively thrilling book, it also stands for something very serious.