interviews / Q&A's

Meet John Fairfax – The Literary Lounge Q&A


JOHN FAIRFAX is the pen name of award-winning crime writer and former barrister William Brodrick. John, whose new book, Summary Justice, is published by Little, Brown, joins us in The Literary Lounge to answer a few questions. Summary Justice is the first in a new London-based legal series featuring former convict-turned barrister William Benson and his partner Tess de Vere. The TV rights for the book have already been optioned by Potboiler Television.


LS: Firstly, thank you so much for joining us in The Literary Lounge, John. You write the award-winning Father Anselm novels under your own name, what made you decide to create this new series under a pseudonym? And is there any significance as to the choice of the name John Fairfax?

JH: Yes. Anselm is very much about grappling with moral questions seated, I hope, in an enticing story which is usually complex, spanning generations and history. Benson & de Vere are very different. The books will all be courtroom dramas, and I wanted to mark that difference with a change of name. There is no secret meaning to the name … although there is to Benson and de Vere. The wig I wore at the Bar was made in the 19th century and belonged to a man called George de Vere Benson.


LS: You have said that Father Anselm is a ‘man with faith, seeking understanding. After that, though, we differ. He is far more agreeable than me and his faults aren’t so glaring.’ Are there any similarities between you and William Benson?

JH: In terms of his burden, no. He is a man who has been brutalised by prison and lives with a depth of guilt that would certainly crush me. I just don’t have that kind of strength. I am similar to him in the sense that we both get a huge thrill from being in court. We both think that legal process is a highly effective way of flushing out the truth. We both know it is flawed … which makes getting it right so important.


LS: Would you say consider Benson a man of faith? If so, is it faith that carries him through his sentence and fuels his desire to become a barrister?

JH: He’s never given the matter much thought. So he is someone who may or may not have sensibilities towards questions of faith. Benson’s active faith is in humanity: the capacity to rise above devastating experiences. To remain decent when events can so easily make one bitter. For him, being at the Bar is a way of being at the centre of the fight for the truth. Every trial is an enactment of this endless human desire for justice.


LS: How much of a moral dilemma was it for Benson to make the decision to admit to a crime that he didn’t commit in order to pursue a career in law? What was his reasoning? Do you see it as something he has come to terms with or is it a personal demon?

JH: I can’t answer this question! It goes to the heart of the series as a whole. Because we, the reader, do not know if Benson really killed Paul Harbeton or not. Tess is haunted by this unresolved question. He’s admitted to the crime in order to get the earliest possible parole and begin a career at the Bar. Without being technically ‘rehabilitated’ he would have had no chance. The morality of that choice can only be judged once we know if Benson is, in fact, a murderer. So this is a very live question. We know that Benson is tortured by guilt. We know that Tess has secretly set out to find out the truth, and in each book she will get closer and closer to what really happened … and that point, when all is revealed, I’ll be able to answer this question! But it is very clear that Benson is tortured by various demons. Some are known – his time in prison; his fractured relationship with his brother; the hostility roused against him because of his past; other demons are hidden … and they will all be brought into the light … by Tess.


LS: Is his career post-prison based on a desire to change things from within the system? To right wrongs because he can’t right his own?

JH: Yes to both questions … but only in a way. Benson has found a way of living with his past … and that is to be someone else. He walks into court and he is no longer the man with a conviction. He is a barrister defending a person who claims to be innocent, and who faces the full might of the state; who faces seemingly overwhelming evidence. This is a tense drama with enormous issues at stake, and the fight for an acquittal, deep down, is a replay of his own devastating experience. He is constantly fighting the battle that he personally lost.


LS: Would he be able to practice under these circumstances in reality? Have you based him on a real-life figure?

JH: Benson isn’t based on anyone. But it is technically possible for someone with such a conviction to become a barrister, yes. The obstacles they would face are immense. The profession is regulated by the Inns of Court Conduct Committee and the Bar Standards Board, and they would need some persuading. Benson pulls it off.


LS: Is Benson Tess’s redemption from a life less ordinary?

JH: It looks that way now, but in fact, absolutely not. Because Tess is, herself, a tortured woman. We just haven’t got there in the series, yet. But we’ve been given some hints. We know she moved from London to Strasbourg and we’re given hints as to the reason why … but all that will unravel in the future.


LS: Is this their second chance?

JH: I like this question. The answer is yes. But it is a second chance in many ways and on many levels. It doesn’t mean they are going to end up together … though they might. The point is, they are intimately involved in each other’s redemption.


LS: The landscape seems important. There’s a great sense of place, of London, especially where Benson lives. You have lived in many different places, what made you choose London (and Norfolk/the sea, to a certain degree) as backdrops for this book (and others, going forward?)?

JH: I wanted to locate each of Benson’s trials in the Old Bailey. And that meant Benson living in London … but I also wanted to explore the wonderful history and ambiance of Spitalfields, where his Chambers are based. The lost world of tailors and fishmongers and ancient hostelries … only it is not entirely lost, of course: the place is redolent with memory, and Archie Congreve, Benson’s prison friend and clerk embodies them all. As regards Benson’s home, I’ve always wanted to live on a barge on the Albert Canal. This was my chance. I gave Benson a boat and moored it to a fictional wharf near Wenlock Basin. Tess lives in a very different place – Ennismore Garden Mews – a cobbled street in Knightsbridge. These are all old walking haunts from when I lived in London. I chose the Norfolk coast because of the fishing background necessary to the story, but also because of the magnetic attraction I have for the sea, which also functions as a contrast to the darker London scenes.


LS: Is Papillon (Benson’s cat) a nod to the book/film?

JH: Yes. I read the book years ago, and when Benson’s cat walked into the story the name just sprang to mind.


LS: How much of the legal detail in this book is based on personal knowledge/career knowledge and how much was the result of research?

JH: Most of the detail is based on the ten years I spent at the Bar. But a great deal has happened in court procedure (especially the rules governing the admissibility of evidence) so I checked everything. I have up to date copies of Archbold and Blackstone’s – breeze blocks on criminal procedure, evidence and practice, used by every barrister. This is an important part of the series. I wanted readers to see what a criminal trial is really like, down the smallest of details.


LS: Have you mapped out the books going forward in the series (there’s obviously a nod to next one at the end of the book)? Or are you going to see where the characters take you?

JH: I have mapped out the backstories to both Benson and Tess. Theirs is the underlying drama that will be explored in tandem to any given story. I expect to tell Benson’s story in three or four books. There are lots of puzzles to be dealt with: did Benson kill Paul Harbeton? Who is his mysterious benefactor? Will Benson ever be reconciled with his brother? And there are more, all arising from what Tess will discover as we go along. Once Benson has been dealt with, I will move onto Tess … for her background will be shown to have its own dark spots. And this time it will be Benson who is on the trail. That’s the plan, anyway! Whatever happens, each book will be a courtroom drama, and I have a file of ideas that I will plunder in due course.


LS: Are you still writing the Father Anselm series?

JH: No. Anselm has taken a step back. Whether or not this is permanent, I don’t know. I doubt it. With Anselm I only wanted to explore knotty moral questions. If one surfaces that troubles me, and it feels like Anselm territory, then no doubt he’ll be back. That said, Benson and de Vere is quite a big project and it is going to take some time to finish what I have planned.


LS: How long did it take you to write this book? Was it more difficult/easier than the Father Anselm series?

JH: I wrote the first draft in 6 weeks. But, and this is a big but, I had done a great deal of preparation in advance. In effect, I created a brief like I used to receive at the Bar: a file containing witness statements, expert reports, weather reports, chronologies, articles, plans, photographs. And that took several months to compile. When I started the first draft it was like going back into court … I just opened the brief and conducted the trial as if it was really happening.


LS: Will you have any involvement in any TV/film adaption/s going forward?

JH: Yes. The project has been optioned for television so that is an exciting development. I will be involved and, I have to say, I can’t wait.


LS: In your ‘Field of Dreams’ adaptation who would play the two main protagonists?

JH: Given that this ‘Field of Dream’ adaptation is underway, I’d better keep quiet on this one!


LS: Do you have a particular process when writing?

JH: Story idea, theme and characters can come in any order. They usually nudge each other into existence. Once I have a general picture, I prepare detailed chronologies for each character, so I can see how they relate to each other and the events in the story. I research the elements integral to key events and the characters (probably far too much), and I start fleshing out the story in chronological order. This is quite a circular task … everything gets revised and revised until the picture is clear. With Benson, the format of a criminal trial is already determined, so the plotting task must work around this given structure. Once I have a sense of beginning, middle and end, I make up the mock brief I mentioned earlier. Then I roll up at the Old Bailey, as it were, and start writing. While I have done a lot of preparation, the characters can and do change what I have planned: that is the wonderfully surprising part of telling a story … in a way it slips out of your hands and becomes strangely real.


LS: If you could give any budding writer a piece of advice, what would it be?

JH: I once heard someone say on the radio that in writing, inspiration counts for about 5%; the rest is perseverance. I broadly agree. So, whatever happens, come rain come shine, persevere.


LS: Thanks so much, John.



Summary Justice by John Fairfax • Published by Little, Brown • 2 March 2017 • hardback • £16.99

See our review of Summary Justice







Also of interest:The long road – John Fairfax’s Summary Justice‘; ‘Meet Ian Ridley – The Literary Lounge Q&A’; ‘Matt Johnson’s End Game; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut The Dry – murder and mayhem in small-town Australia‘; ‘An Alaskan epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence‘; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”’; ‘Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).’


Acknowledgements: Thank you to John Harvey/William Brodrick and Grace Vincent, Publicity Manager at Little, Brown.


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