According to the Evidence (1954) by Henry Cecil

This is a book with an unusual and unconventional structure. First there is the trial of Gilbert Essex, who is accused of assaulting and murdering a girl. There have been a spate of such crimes, but this is the only time a witness has been able to identify anyone. Yet the evidence is circumstantial and the first chapter sees Essex’s release. However, chapter 2 sees Essex murdered… but who by? Well that answer swiftly follows in chapter 3. Now given that this is a 186 paged novel, what are the remaining 13 chapters going to be looking at? I won’t give too many details away, but suffice to say there is another trial and it is even odds as to whether the accused will be acquitted this time…

Overall Thoughts

For the first third of this book I found the narrative trajectory of this book hard to fathom, as my synopsis perhaps intimates. But once you get a handle on it, it gets easier to go along with. In the main though I think this book is primarily one which shows up the vagaries of the legal system. This is not surprising given the day job of the writer and his experience of the law courts shines throughout the story; in their knowledge of legal matters and ability to present it in a concise and readable way, as well as in the phraseology and language used by the Defence and Prosecution counsels.

The narrative paints quite a broad canvas, which for me I felt prevented the reader from getting up close with the characters. Despite the moral ambiguities tossed around in the tale, the reader is not called upon to invest in the book in that emotional/philosophical manner. In short my reader-ly sympathies were not particularly engaged and the second accused party felt like a very faintly drawn personality, which is perhaps a weakness given their central role. Furthermore, an interesting character who gets placed in the middle of proceedings and whose role in the plot is fundamental, was not in terms of the narrative sufficiently used and his character never really comes to life, which is a shame as his witty repartee with his wife was enjoyable.

Incidentally there is something positively Shakespearean in the style of the book, as Cecil indulges in a separate comic interlude, which is not relevant to the central plot at all, but concerns the attempt of a young man to write a love letter, yet never getting beyond the first two words, as his helper is forever called away on another task. I’m at a loss as to the reason for the inclusion of these interludes over than for entertainment, but it is a shame that they don’t connect at some point with the rest of the story.

However I did enjoyed the twist to do with the jury, a twist which is a first for me in my reading experience, though again not fully utilised in my opinion. Finally the ending didn’t have enough oomph to justify the course the story took, so I’m afraid this was another average read from Cecil.

Rating: 3.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Lawyer, Barrister, Judge

Calendar of Crime: April (7) Book title which has a word starting with A

14 comments

  1. Well, I thought this book was hilarious. I had no trouble following the plot or “the narrative trajectory”, and had no quibbles with the characters. It’s one of the best satires of courtroom law I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Cecil’s strength is his outlandish sense of humor and his skill at manipulating language the way lawyers do. No mention of Ambrose Low, no mention of Colonel Brain — two of Cecil’s recurring characters and best creations. I just needed to step in and let people know this book is not the confusing downer your review paints it as. It’s sparklingly funny and a dazzling display of the sometimes Machiavellian use of language in the courtroom.

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    • This is my first encounter with AL and CB, so was not aware they were reoccurring characters, but points in the text did make me think it was a possibility. I do mention Low just not by name and he is the character I felt was not fully used. He was working a little too much in the background.
      I think you might be misunderstanding my review in part, as I was not confused in the sense of what is happening, but in the first third it is difficult to see where the text will be heading. It’s trajectory is not something you can foresee at that point.
      Also I don’t see why the review needs stepping into, like some kind of intervention. My opinion is as valid as yours.

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  2. Man, after struggling and failing with Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare I’m reluctant to get involved in any more counrt-based shenanigans at the moment…and yet the strucutre of this sounds rather gorgeous. Never read any Cecil, couldn’t tell you a thing about him or his writing, so I appreciate you flagging this up even if it wasn’t entirely successful for you.

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    • In terms of characterisation and style Cecil’s book is superior if that is any consolation. It’s also shorter I think. Perhaps you can circle back to this one, once you’ve read all Carr’s, Penny’s and Croft’s novels? Got to happen at some point surely?
      On paper this book should have appealed more to me, but maybe my expectations didn’t quite align with what it was doing. Cecil will get at least one more try, as I have Natural Causes in my TBR pile.

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  3. I also struggled with this one early on but found it got much smoother and funnier once it got over that initial hump. Though Cecil’s books are amusing, they never stick in my mind, somehow.

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