‘If my future wasn’t in the balance, if I wasn’t scared to hell, I’d say I’ve enjoyed this trial.’ Benson nodded, contradicting Tess’s shake of the head. ‘Honestly. If I’d known what being a barrister involved, if I’d realised what happens in a courtroom, this is what I’d like to have done with my life. It’s been a revelation. Like a blinding light. Only it’s come too late.’


‘It’s never too late.’ Tess had spoken lightly, but Benson leaned across the table. Those drowning brown eyes were wide with a dying man’s hope.


‘Are you being serious?’


‘Why wouldn’t I be?'”


–William Benson to Tess de Vere in 1999



JOHN FAIRFAX’S NEW NOVEL, SUMMARY JUSTICE, opens with the sentencing of twenty-one-year-old philosophy student William Benson for a murder that he may or may not have committed. Although Benson has professed his innocence to Tess de Vere, the young law student shadowing the trial, he later admits his guilt and begins the long road to getting his law degree in prison. Sixteen years later, Benson is free and, against all odds, has set up his own practice in London’s Spitalfields, in a defunct fishmonger’s owned by the family of Benson’s former inmate and law clerk Archie. In the headlines again, Benson is the subject of ‘Paul’s Law’, proposed retrospective legislation preventing people committed of ‘grave’ offences from working within the justice system. And, de Vere, whose own career path changed after Benson’s sentencing, immediately seeks him out, offering to work with him on the seemingly hopeless murder case that he’s just taken on.

At the heart of Summary Justice lies the question of Benson’s guilt. When asked about it, his responses seem oblique. ‘If I didn’t accept the verdict, I wouldn’t have got parole. And I could never have worked as a barrister,’ he explains to Archie’s father, early on in the book. ‘… It’s crazy, I know, but if I said I was innocent, they’d say I lied.’ But whether guilty or not, Benson is getting his second chance, the opportunity to redeem himself and help others get the justice he may or may not have received himself. In this particular case, he’s fighting for Sarah Collingstone, a woman accused of murder. To all intents and purposes, it appears to be an open-and-shut case: Collingstone, an attractive woman in her 30s, a single mother, burdened by a disabled son, with no hope of a seemingly normal relationship, had latched onto her boss, Andrew Bealing, her Fatal Attraction-esque obsession culminating in his murder. The evidence appears damning, but Collingstone, like Benson himself, maintains her innocence. The parallels between their circumstances are many, leading to Benson’s added investment in the outcome of Collingstone’s case.

Summary Justice raises many interesting questions, not least about guilt, second chances and redemption, but it’s Fairfax’s writing and the plot itself that keeps our interest.  From the start, we’re drawn in to Benson’s world. We care about him, just as de Vere does. And, we come to care about de Vere, who, like Benson, is a victim of her own personal demons and past. And yet, while the opening pages of Summary Justice draw us in, it’s the latter half of the book in which Fairfax truly comes into his own, the pace of the plot, subplots and characterisation making this a true page turner.

The plot unfolds against the backdrop of a vividly depicted London, which moves from the streets of historic Spitalfields and the yet to be regenerated waterways of the Grand Union Canal, where Benson’s barge is situated, to the more refined locales of Knightsbridge, where de Vere lives, and the hallowed hallways of the Old Bailey itself. As Fairfax says, ‘These are all old walking haunts from when I lived in London.’ The openness and light of Norfolk and the sea, where Benson grew up up, are set up in contrast to the pervading darkness and, for Benson, often claustrophobic confines of the city. Music references to songs by the Proclaimers and Coldplay, among others, also help set the scene.

Extremely filmic as it is, it’s thus no real surprise that Summary Justice has already been optioned for TV by Potboiler Television. And as this is the first in the Benson–de Vere series by Fairfax, the pen name of award-winning crime writer William Brodrick, we look forward to watching Benson and de Vere’s story unfold – in the forthcoming books and on screen – with much baited breath.


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

See our interview with John Fairfax



Also of interest:Meet John Fairfax – The Literary Shed Q&A’; ‘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”’; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – E. McKnight Kauffer‘ (book covers we love); ‘Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime‘ (book covers we love).


Acknowledgements: Quoted text from Summary Justice (27, 34), copyright © John Fairfax 2017. Thanks to Grace Vincent, Publicity Manager at Little, Brown for the review copy. This piece is published as part of the Little, Brown blog tour in March 2017.


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