This month's selection of leisure reading from the Journal's Book Review Editor

A Personal Verdict

Irvine Smith QC
Black & White Publishing Ltd: £20

The life and times of Irvine Smith have become the stuff of legend, so much has he achieved inside and outside the law. Five capital murder trials between 1957 and 1963. Twenty years teaching Scottish legal history, with related research for the Stair Society. Twenty eight years as a resident sheriff in Glasgow, then Greenock, Dunoon and Rothesay. All that after-dinner speaking, meticulously crafted. Travelling the world to give the Immortal Memory. And as for all those anecdotes about what happened next: can they all be true? The list of accomplishments goes on and on, but now you can find the author’s life story all in the one place, for the definitive version is to hand.

There is something of interest for everyone in this wholly absorbing autobiography. We read of the author’s early life and education (how useful later on were those elocution lessons); his arrival at the bar in 1953 (only about 100 members, of whom only two were women); his appearances on the poor’s roll (no criminal legal aid then); and his time as a sheriff, particularly in Glasgow (the custody court at Ingram Street; the Ibrox Disaster proof; Wee Hughie and Barney Noon). All of this and much, much more is covered in the author’s inimitable style. Many personal reminiscences of characters and events outwith the law are included, allowing us an insight into his many extra-curricular interests.

Indeed, many of the chapters illustrate just how much the world has changed. The trumpets no longer sound at Jail Square at the start of a Glasgow circuit. Affiliation and aliment is a cause of the past. Kenspeckle figures like Frank Duffy and Lawrence Dowdall no longer tread the boards. Irvine Smith tells us of it all. This is a book you just can’t put down. If you weren’t given a copy for Christmas, buy one now.

Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England

Professor Haia Shapayer-Makov
Oxford University Press: £30

This is a scholarly but absorbing work: the 309 pages of text are supplemented by over 100 pages of footnotes, bibliography and an index. Tantalisingly, the only statement I found unvouched was at p 149: “the legal system required members of the community to testify in court to corroborate police testimony” – although the author appears to go on to explain what she means that police were “rarely eyewitnesses and depended upon cooperation and evidence from the public to tackle criminals”.

The book charts the rise of organised police forces in England & Wales from the days of the Bow Street Runners in the 18th century, to the Peel reforms with the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 and the establishment of a detective branch in 1842 located at Scotland Yard, and on to the outbreak of World War 1.

As well as describing the development of police forces and the emergence of the detective elite, the author covers the pay and conditions, and explains how promotion to detective from the ranks after years on the beat as a constable became the norm.

The second section of the book describes the place of the police detective in the media and fiction. Nowadays it is taken for granted in crime fiction that the central character – Rebus, Wallander and the like – will be a police detective, but it was not always so.

The book shows the evolution from the memoirs of McLevy, an Edinburgh detective who published books in the 1860s covering his police career which began 30 years previously. Charles Dickens befriended detectives and used their stories in his novels around this time. After a period when other authors wrote pseudo-memoirs of detectives, there was a spell in crime fiction where the private detective held sway. This reached its zenith with Sherlock Holmes, who was regularly consulted when police were “baffled”, and revealed to Inspector Lestrade of the Yard the true culprit.

However by the Edwardian era, when more police memoirs were published and the police, particularly the Metropolitan Police, had a closer relationship with the press, the police detective assumed his status in written media as the ultimate crime fighter. This mirrored the increasing respect and interest the public had in police detectives, compared to their introduction in the 1840s where many parliamentarians were concerned that such officers would use their time to spy on the public.

Evelio Rosero
MacLehose Press (Quercus): £12

This short, powerful satire dealing with frustrated desires and corruption is set in a Catholic church in Colombia. When the local parish priest and his sexton are called away to a meeting with a local benefactor, his staff look after his temporary substitute. Although Father Matamoros is a hopeless drunk, his beautiful singing bewitches everyone. He invites a young hunchback, the sexton’s sullen goddaughter and the trio of worthy widows who feed the parish’s outcasts to join him for dinner, leading to an alcohol fuelled evening of confession and outrageously bad behaviour. Not for cat lovers or the easily offended.

Robert Harris
Hutchison: £18.99 (e-book £8.55)

Alexi Hoffman was involved in the development of artificial human intelligence systems at CERN in Switzerland. Following a breakdown and realisation by others of the impact of such software, he becomes a hedge fund manager and develops a flawless system where VIXAL-4 algorithm tracks human emotion and, going through the internet, scoops up data to predict and profit on market cycles, making profits of $200m a day. Harris has built a riveting financial thriller based on the flaws and greed of the financial system, combined with the reality that no computer system is beyond attack and manipulation.

CyberThieves, CyberCops and You

Misha Glennie
Bodley Head: £20 (ebook £9.45)

Glennie again meticulously investigates organised crime as it operates on the darker side of the internet. Glennie’s research and access to key players is unrivalled and makes for an engrossing book. With a light touch he puts life into the phrases we hear but don’t know: crackers, hackers and organised crime go hand in hand. He explains the working of the Carder website where skimmers, false credit cards and their details were freely bought and sold, making untold sums for those behind the site, but to be replaced by Darkmarket. However of the crackers much is told of the sad truth behind the lives of barely adolescents who developed from fixated gamers to breakers of systems. Next time your email address book is scammed, seize this book and wonder!

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