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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Verdict by Nick Stone

Pegasus, 512 pages, $25.95 (c2015)

Nick Stone is a British writer who up until now has produced a crime series set in Miami and Haiti. The award-winning “Mr. Clarinet,” the first in the Max Mingus series, was one of Jean’s notable mysteries of 2007 in MBTB’s year-end list. “The Verdict” is set in London and is not part of the series, and it certainly will be a pick for this year’s list.

Terry Flynt has a wonderful wife and two wonderful kids. He miraculously landed a clerk’s job with a good law firm in London. Things are looking up, which is in vivid contrast to his dark early years. His firm has pulled the sensational case of the year. Vernon James (“VJ”), a successful businessman, has been accused of strangling a woman in a London hotel.

The twists and turns of this novel start right from the beginning. Terry Flynt and Vernon James were best mates when they were teens in a lower class area of Stevenage, a town north of London. Stone gradually reveals the traumatic events that separated the two besties in their teens. They have not met or spoken for twenty years, and Terry has intensely hated VJ for those twenty years. Now Terry is a minor part of VJ’s defense team. Terry has not told his firm about his past relationship with VJ. Should they find out, it would mean curtains for any hopes Terry has of making his way up the legal ladder because it would expose more elements of his difficult past.

Called in to be the lead in the case is the finely-drawn character, Christine Devereaux, QC, who appears with this introduction, “‘Just so you know, I’m dying. But not today.’” She has a terminal illness and often appears wan and tired. Will she last long enough to appear in the Old Bailey to defend VJ? Although the actual courtroom proceedings take a scant fifth of the book, for me it was the moment upon the shining stage. The courtroom battle was the marvelous drawing together of all the pieces of strange information that Terry had gathered, sometimes with the help of the mysterious Andy Swayne, a discredited, alcoholic private investigator.

Although there are very few “action” scenes, one of the most significant is in the background. In 2011, when this story takes place, there were riots in several London neighborhoods, protesting police killing of a black suspect. That sometimes mindless violence provides the backdrop of a more personal experience for Terry. It’s one of the best scenes in the book.

VJ has consistently declared his innocence. He also claims the woman found dead in his room is not the woman with whom he had a rendezvous the evening of the murder. The evidence gathered by the police clearly indicates otherwise. Is VJ delusional? Is he a rich man used to getting his way? Despite his personal antipathy, Terry plunges into tracing clues to sustain VJ’s proclamation. VJ is an odious person, used to lying and scheming. It’s hard to feel sympathy towards him. In fact, Christine, in her opening statement to the jury says, “‘I don’t like Vernon James.’” But the point of criminal law is that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Terry must hold to this axiom.

Stone has created a wonderfully complex drama. It does veer off into strangely complicated territory towards the end, and I would have preferred a different route to the same conclusion, but it was a very satisfying book. Terry is not the everyman initially presented, and I enjoyed Stone’s gradual unmasking of Terry’s story.

MBTB star for a practically perfect read!

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