What better decade than the 1960s for an up-and-coming criminal barrister to ply his trade and build his reputation? Synonymous with violent gang-crime and turf wars, the (often glamourised) 60s provide a rich vein of real case material and well-reported reference points.
The barrister in question – Charles Holborne – is a complex man and in two novels released in under a year – ‘The Brief‘ and ‘An Honest Man‘ – he is introduced to the reader against a heart-thumping backdrop of personal and professional strife.
Simon Michael is very much a master of his brief. A lifetime spent at the Bar lends credence, experience and a sharp legal brain to his challenge of setting the fictional central protagonist, Charles Holborne, into a world we might feel we already know.
Holborne is a complicated man, with his own dark secrets and an unhappy personal life. With a boxer’s physique and an intellect’s mind, there are obvious paradoxes for the author to play with. That he does so convincingly is testament to a story-teller’s art; each layer of the story is peeled back naturally.
Believable dialogue allows characters to develop and plots to unravel as Charles Holborne garners sympathy for the way he is being treated yet a hint of contempt for his inability to control his personal life with the same competence he demonstrates in his profession. And it is the former which ultimately threatens to bring him down; as ‘The Brief‘ unfolds so Simon Michael skilfully paints his (anti) hero into a legal corner, which he must fight to escape from.
If ‘The Brief‘ sets the scene, the follow up ‘An Honest Man‘ picks up the baton and sprints headlong into the murky gang wars of the Swinging Sixties.
The Prologue combines disarming domestic detail with casual violence, crashing the reader headlong into the sinister and underlying violence which characterised the decade.
And as the reader is drawn in, so too is Charles Holborne. The shallow victory won at the denouement of ‘The Brief‘ has, seemingly, left him no better off as he struggles to reestablish himself within his Chambers. A darkness has descended on the once high-flying barrister; even the apparent good fortune of a significant case threatens to further dim the flickering lights of his career.
Simon Michaels deftly allows Holborne brief moments of happiness before plunging him once more into the depths. It is the humanness of the situation and the flaws Charles Holborne displays that draw you into his world. The fascination with crime and the period does the rest.
What you are given is a compelling page-turner that is hard to put down. You root for Charles Holborne, yet – not far below the surface – you sense something is not quite right. The cleverness of Simon Michael’s writing has you willing our barrister to win his case, and to find personal happiness and yet … there is an unwritten darker side that compromises your trust, that undermines Holborne’s position in your sympathies.
As I finished ‘An Honest Man’, I realised it was the flaws which gripped me … and the darker side that I will relish when Simon Michael takes Charles Holborne further into “the shadowy underworld of 1960s London“.
These are confident novels, sharply observed, packed full of rich, authentic dialogue. Pacy, yet measured, they weave complex legal scenes with light, credible domestic and professional moments where characters are fleshed out and the central hero is exposed, both for good and bad.
It is a good sign to close a book wanting to get started straight away on the next one.
When I finished ‘The Brief‘ I was lucky enough to have ‘An Honest Man‘ to hand … I now need that next instalment!