|BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT
& Scott Kershaw
Raven Books (www.bloomsbury.com)
Elliot Rook, Queen’s Counsel, is one of the greatest barristers practicing in Britain. Rarely beaten in the courtroom, Rook has a gift for proving guilty men innocent, and little in the way of a conscience to prevent him from doing his best every time he dons his gown and wig. But Rook has a dark secret: he’s not the old Etonian that many of his colleagues – and rivals – believe him to be. He’s an ex-criminal who has done everything he can to distance himself from his early years of crime in Nottingham. Now the body of a young woman is found near his old stomping grounds and white supremacist Billy Barber has been arrested for the crime. Now Rook must work his magic, because if Billy Barber goes to prison for the murder, he’s threatening to reveal everything he knows about Rook’s past – and few know the younger Rook any better. With the help of Zara Barnes, an apprentice who graduated from state school, and who reminds Rook of his own journey, Rook must prove that Barber is innocent while dealing with the deep regrets of a long-buried past.
Gary Bell’s first novel introduces us not only to Elliot Rook, QC, but also to the rarefied world that Rook inhabits: The Inns of Court. A world of privilege and snobbery, we find ourselves unsurprised by Percy Peck’s initial assessment of Zara Barnes, a native of Nottingham, educated in the public-school system, and now trying to find a place in the Old Boys’ Network that is the London Courts system. It does come as a surprise, then, when we realise that Rook himself comes from a very similar background, geographically as well as more generally, and, despite the façade, there is still something about Rook that will always make him an outsider in this place.
Part investigation, part courtroom drama, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is our introduction to a layered and at times ambiguous new character who is sure to draw comparisons to Steve Cavanagh’s Eddie Flynn, though with a much more quintessentially British flavour. Rook’s background makes him unpredictable and, despite the often stuffy locations, we find ourselves in the company of a man who enjoys not living up to other peoples’ expectations of who he is, and how he should act. Where Rook really comes into his own is in the courtroom, where his sharp intellect and ability to adapt on-the-fly make him a formidable opponent whose legendary track record is as daunting as the man himself.
What makes Elliot Rook stand out from other giants of crime fiction is the fact that he’s not your average “good guy” or hero. As a defence barrister his job, more often than not, is to argue for the innocence of rich men who are all-too-often guilty. Rook doesn’t see a problem in this: he has a well-deserved reputation, and he is keen to play on it. He has, however, a strong moral core, that makes him a character for whom we find ourselves rooting, even though we would be cheering for the other side in most other contemporary crime novels. It will be interesting to see how this develops across the series, as we’re bound to find ourselves morally opposed to Rook at some point in the future.
Bell surrounds his central character with supporting actors who serve to highlight or contrast against certain qualities that we would expect from a man in his position. Percy Peck is a model of the man that most people believe Rook himself to be: rich and snobby, an old Etonian who likes to pretend the lower classes don’t exist. On the other hand, Zara Barnes manages to draw out the real Elliot Rook, through her unprivileged background, and her determination to do well in spite of where she has come from. It strikes a nice balance between a glimpse into this world that is open to very few, while still being accessible enough for your average reader to enjoy.
Smart and engaging, with a warm and often funny heart, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is the perfect introduction to Elliot Rook and to the world of English law. The story is well-written, and there’s a nice balance between enough action to keep things interesting, but never so much that Rook becomes a caricature, a sort of legal Indiana Jones (or, indeed, Eddie Flynn). It’s an excellent start to a new series, introducing a character that looks set to become an instant fan favourite. For fans of courtroom dramas or smart, well-plotted crime fiction, Beyond Reasonable Doubt should be on your list of must-reads this year.