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

Rose Heilbron: Inspiring Advocate who became England's First Woman Judge

Hilary Heilbron QC (Hart Publishing: £20)

Rose Heilbron was called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1939. In 1949 she became one of the first female silks in England & Wales, although Scotland’s much respected Margaret Kidd had achieved the distinction of becoming Britain’s first female KC a year earlier. When in 1956 she was appointed recorder of Burnley, a part -time judge, Rose Heilbron became Britain’s first woman judge. In 1974 she was sworn in as High Court judge, although she was not the first English woman to achieve that position, Elizabeth Lane having been appointed in 1965.

The current generation of lawyers may know little about Rose Heilbron, but during her professional life she was a legendary figure. She was a brilliant and skilful advocate, who was also beautiful and charming. She achieved enormous success in a profession which had hitherto been an exclusively male preserve, and she did so without ever compromising her femininity.

In the middle 1960s, when I was told on several occasions, and on good authority, that the Faculty of Advocates was “not the place for a woman”, Rose Heilbron, whose success had captured the public imagination, was a role model and a source of encouragement and inspiration. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her, my husband, a young boy at the time, remembers the excitement caused by her presence at Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow in the middle 1950s. That congregation, and indeed the entire Jewish community, was immensely proud of this daughter of a middle class Liverpool Jewish family who remained true to her roots.

This biography, written by her daughter Hilary, who is herself now a practising QC, highlights her many forensic triumphs in many interesting and important cases. Her practice was remarkable for its width and variety, and she was skilful and successful in both the criminal and civil courts. Many of her cases were high profile. She acted for the defence in murder trials which in the days of capital punishment were the subject of intense public interest. She successfully represented the Liverpool dockers who were indicted for striking unlawfully. She also had a large personal injuries practice which included many medical negligence cases. She seems to have moved seamlessly from a high profile case in one field to another in a very different area of the law. Despite the demands of such a practice, including the constant travelling about the country, she was also engaged in many other legal and non-legal activities.

Through the personal recollections of her daughter, we are given an insight into the private face of this very public, internationally acclaimed personality who demonstrated so impressively what a woman could achieve in the law. The enduring impression is of a warm, vital, much loved personality who cared deeply for justice and equality and whose modesty was untainted by success. One of her greatest achievements, so remarkable in that era, remains a perennial challenge for women – the combination of a successful professional life with a happy and fulfilled home life as wife and mother.


The Secret Listeners

Sinclair McKay (Aurum: £20; e-book £11.52)

This is another fine book from this Scottish author. A follow-up to The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, it tells the story of how the Wireless, or "Y", Service operated listening units all over the UK and at theatres abroad during the Second World War.

The recollections of the intrepid men and women members of Y Service are blended into a beautifully written text which tells their story and provides the historical context and marvellous descriptive detail: “They operated the sleekest new wireless equipment – smooth grey Bakelite... the vanilla glow of illuminated dials… intricately and exquisitely engineered… a labyrinth of spring-loaded split-gears… for pinpoint dial accuracy – dedicated woman and men would sit, their ears clamped in warm headphones, in a strange half-world.”

Y Service gathered groups of Morse code cypher produced by the German Enigma machines and their Japanese counterparts and sent the data to Bletchley Park for decoding. At other times they intercepted and translated radio communications from enemy forces, which provided useful intelligence in the sinking of the Bismarck and the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Corps, to name but two examples.

The surviving men and women describe the stamina required, the hours of boredom, moments of excitement and fear, as well as the opportunity to travel to exotic locations. They were selected for their basic attributes, trained to an intense level, and kept their secrets for many years after being demobbed. The author has done them justice in recording their stories into a flowing and enjoyable read.

The Minotaur's Head

Marek Krajewski (MacLehose Press: £18.99; e-book £10.44)

Krajewski was for many years a lecturer in classical studies at the University of Wroclaw. This is his fourth Eberhard Mock story, the previous three being bestsellers in his native Poland and abroad. Krajewski writes lucidly of the collision and collusion of the two sides of Breslau (Wroclaw) and Lvov (Lviv in the Ukraine), with the occasional diversion to Katowice, in 1937, when all were part of Poland. The two have common features: wild drinking and living.

Amongst this, Abwehr Captain Eberhard Mock is assigned the investigation of a gruesome murder, when a young girl, recently arrived from France, is found dead in a hotel room. He uncovers similar crimes in Lvov and there joins forces with local police commissioner Edward Popielski, a hard drinking and living but somewhat disconsolate single parent of an attractive 17 year old daughter, who puts herself in danger of the Minotaur of the title.

Both men have much in common and are prepared to take what may be seen as unorthodox routes of investigation, but who are driven to ensure the Minotaur is captured. This is Polish crime fiction at perhaps its darkest. However, the description of the cities and the debauched life beneath the veneer of everyday life, set against the background of the buildup to war, is absorbing.


C K Stead (MacLehose Press: £16.99; e-book £9.78)

C K Stead is a poet as well as a novelist. This love makes up the first of the many strands of this subtle and satisfying novel. The second is the story of the first 10 years of this millennium. It is truly remarkable that we have lived through a decade which will feature in history books for ever: the moral ambiguities of the Gulf Wars and the backlashes of 9/11 and 7/7. Throughout this is the story of Sam Nola, New Zealand corporate lawyer, back in Europe after the breakup of his marriage, seeking he knows not what, and finding much more. Family on many levels; fortune of many types; love. Many more strands are interwoven along the way. The risk of the title is the business of the big boss bank – another feature of the decade. It may prove Sam's undoing after the book ends, but that will be but one of the moral dilemmas which he will face. Highly recommended.

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter

Malcolm Mackay (Pan Macmillan: £14.99; e-book £6.99)

Calum Maclean sits and listens to the football on the radio. He is reading – Somerset Maugham’s The Painted View, if you must know. Calum is a Glasgow hitman. His great strength is his complete independence. No ties; no obligation to regular work; no mistakes. It’s easy to kill a man, he says. It’s hard to kill a man well.

This is a debut novel by Stornowegian Malcolm Mackay. A debutant with no shortage of confidence, as we are told this is the first volume of a trilogy. And no small conceit on the part of his publisher, who has the temerity on the cover to describe Mackay as reading “like a more literary Ian Rankin”. Putting that to one side, this is a terrifically compelling read. There are a few quibbles about the lack of basic research – Glasgow nightclubs do not close at midnight, for example – but nothing that a decent editor couldn’t tweak.

Will Calum’s much prized independence be compromised by the twists of this job? Will the insightful DI Michael Fisher feature in the next two books? I for one will be in the queue to find out.

The Author
Rt Hon Lady Cosgrove
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