Article published on November 28, 2016.
Charles Holborne is the antihero protagonist of my series of noir crime and legal thrillers set in London. The first two books in the series, The Brief and An Honest Man, are set in the 1960s. The third, The Lighterman (to be published in May 2017), is also set in the 1960s but much is told in flashback to The Blitz, in 1940. I am often asked why I choose to write thrillers in the recent historical past.
The post-War period represented the ‘Wild West’ of British justice. Criminal gangsters such as the Messina brothers, Billy Hill, the Kray twins and the Richardson’s fought for control of the proceeds of vice, pornography, gambling and drugs. In the 1960s the Krays narrowly failed to complete a partnership deal with the Mafia to control London’s gambling houses. There was widespread police corruption, particularly in the Metropolitan Police. Members of the ‘Dirty Squad’, the nickname for the Obscene Publications Squad, were in association with two of the chief Soho club owners and pornographers, Bernie Silver and Jimmy Humphreys, and received thousands of pounds in bribes to let the pornographers continue in business. Detective Chief Superintendent Bill Moody and his superior officer Commander Wally Virgo were eventually prosecuted for their part in this sex trade corruption, each receiving twelve years imprisonment (although Virgo’s conviction was set aside by the Court of Appeal because of a defect in the judge’s summing up).
Members of ‘The Sweeney’, the Flying Squad, including its leader Detective Chief Supt Kenneth Drury, were also corrupt. Drury was eventually convicted on five counts of taking bribes and was sent to prison for eight years. Twelve other officers were convicted and many others resigned. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Operation Countryman revealed the widespread, long-standing corruption and dishonesty of large swathes of the Metropolitan police. Mr Justice Mars-Jones, trying some of the police officers, said that they had been involved in “corruption on a scale which beggars description.”
Corruption was still widespread when I started criminal practice at the London Bar in 1978. It was not restricted to taking bribes from criminals. Many of my clients were beaten into confessing to crimes they did not commit; many were threatened that their children would be taken into care or that their wives would be charged unless they confessed; many were ‘verballed’ – falsely said to have confessed to crimes they never committed.
There was also substantial bias in the criminal judiciary. Prosecuting for the Crown in this period was like sailing with the wind at your back; judges were friendly and helpful. Points made in favour of the prosecution were greeted with enthusiasm and were repeated to the jury; judges would frequently sum up the evidence in favour of the Crown. On the other hand, defending was like wading up to your thighs in a swamp, into the teeth of a gale. Judges would repeatedly interrupt one’s cross-examination of police officers, express disbelief at suggestions that they might have made up the evidence, treat Defence accounts of events with scorn, and ‘put the boot in’ to the Defence case during the summing up. It has been suggested that judges and senior police officers were members of the same Masonic lodges but I think there is a simpler explanation. The judges in the 1960s were born at the turn of the century, when the British Empire was at it’s height and when the establishment depended upon the integrity of its public officials. As society changed from pre-war deference to a culture of rebellion – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – they found it impossible to believe that the police, the last bulwark against the tide, were as dishonest as some of us in the profession knew to be the case. Accordingly, if you happened to be wearing a blue uniform when you stepped into the witness box, you were assumed to be telling the truth.
The tide of immigration, formerly Jewish immigration from war-torn Europe, and in the 1950s and 1960s from the West Indies, created more societal strains, just as we are experiencing now with immigration from the sub-continent.
Lastly, there were no mobile phones, no police computers and no DNA analysis. Detectives, like my noir heroes, Chandler and Spade, had to detect.
What better period in which to set a maverick barrister, an East End ex-boxer with a bit of a criminal past? Charles Holborne has a foot in both camps, and is uncomfortable in each. I take factual scenarios, evidence, transcripts and other documents never seen by the public from real cases on which I worked as a barrister, create new plots in the 1960s, and weave Charles Holborne into them. The series deals with alienation, society in a state of flux, and a man trying to hold to his own moral course in a sea of criminality. He has been described as a British Philip Marlowe – just about the greatest praise I could have imagined!
– Simon Michael, November 2016
About the author
Simon Michael was born in London and practiced as a barrister for over 30 years, doing crime at first in the Middle Temple and then criminal negligence at the largest chambers in England, No 5 Chambers. Simon was published here and in the US in the late 1980s and early 1990 by WH Allen and St Martin’s Press and his short story, Split, was shortlisted for Cosmopolitan/Perrier’s Short Story Award. Four children, two divorces and much therapy forced him to spend the next 20 years practising law, but in 2016 he finally retired to write full-time.
The Brief and An Honest Man (Urbane Publications) are the first two books in a new series of crime thrillers featuring the morally compromised anti-hero barrister, Chales Holborne, an ex-boxer and ex-criminal born on the wrong side of the tracks in the East End. Simon’s crime and legal thrillers deal with themes of morality, alienation and displacement. Mark Mayes, author of The Gift Maker, called An Honest Man, ‘an exceptional novel by an exceptional writer. Charles Holborne is an utterly convincing and compelling fictional creation.’ RC Bridgestock, Waterstones No 1 bestsellers and script consultants to the BBC’s Happy Valley and ITV’s Scott and Bailey said ‘[An Honest Man] drops you into the murky depths of gangland London when the Krays and Richardson’s were in their prime…gripping and utterly compelling…clever, authentic twists and turns…Brilliant! A must read.’
Simon was a founder member and last year the co-chairman of the Ampthill Literary Festival. He lives in Bedfordshire with his wife and youngest child. He is available to talk to book groups, libraries and other organisations about crime in the 1960s and this astonishing period in London’s history.