Stuart Littlemore gained national prominence as host of ABC television's Media Watch program. During his stint at the broadcaster, Littlemore rejoiced in the vilification aimed at him by the media personnel he and his production team exposed as hypocritical, incompetent or unoriginal. One memorable insult that scrolled over the screen regularly accused him of being a 'supercilious git'. Littlemore displays the same self-deprecating sense of humour as an author of fiction. Although the adventures of New South Wales barrister Harry Curry are imaginary, they are sufficiently rooted in reality that the wits might think of them as a kind of 'Lawyer Watch'.
Littlemore introduced Curry to readers in Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice and The Murder Book is an enjoyable addition to the series. In five cases, Curry shows why anyone accused of a serious crime would be glad to have such an advocate. The way that Curry approaches his task also explains why he is feared by judges and why he has lost the support of peers who are desperate to climb the greasy pole. Following clashes with the legal establishment in Sydney, Curry has found himself a peaceful little property at Burragate on the far south coast, but continues to exert an influence through his protégé cum lover, the ambitious young Arabella Engineer. The other major character in these tales is Goulburn solicitor David Surrey who realises the value of Curry's experience and Arabella's enthusiasm and growing competence.
An important feature of these five stories is the way that Harry, Arabella and Surrey approach the role of advocacy. It is all too easy for those outside the legal system to over-emphasise the verdict – the accused is either guilty or not guilty. This over-simplification tends to produce a cynical view of the lawyer's role. In the adversarial system, winning and losing becomes a game in which clients are sidelined and cases are decided according to the barrister's flair, often on mere technicalities. In most of the cases in The Murder Book, the accused admit they performed the acts for which they are being tried. It is the extent of guilt which is at issue. Harry and Arabella strive to have the sentences passed on their clients reflect the realities of their situations.
In 'No discount for murder' for example, Adrian Flowers is accused of slaying several people and gives statements to the police which amount to a confession. The defence team learns however that Flowers suffered domestic neglect and bullying at school. Then he became a paramedic and while stationed at Moruya – one of many South Coast locations used by Littlemore – was involved in removing victims from an horrendous bus crash, which almost certainly left him with post traumatic stress disorder. After injuring his back he was invalided out of the ambulance service, leaving him bitter and aimless. He then worked for criminals he met in pubs and when arrested, voluntarily admitted to five killings. Throughout his interviews with Surrey, Flowers shows little emotion and expresses little interest in pleading mitigation. Arabella challenges the reports of forensic experts in order to win some discount for him and suggests that the judge recognise the public interest value of her clients' willingness to admit to his crimes.
In 'Confronting the abuser' there is an important issue concerning the possibility that an existing heart condition could have contributed significantly to the death of a paedophile who died while being confronted by a long-term victim. 'Lennie without George' turns on the possibility that the assault by Arabella's client on his victim did not cause his death, as others were involved in incinerating the body. 'The shaken baby' involves minute scrutiny of medical evidence that the time at which the baby suffered the trauma causing its death coincided with the time during which he was in the sole custody of Harry's client. In 'The fisherman who hated the sea' Harry has a client who shot a man with what seems to be premeditation, but who then claims he intended only to frighten his victim. Harry reveals many of his secrets in reading juries and in dictating to them.
There is no second work syndrome about The Murder Book. Littlemore's writing maintains the high standard established in Counsel of Choice. The writer develops his central characters and their relationships while engaging the reader's interest with complex and mostly credible plots. The prose is fluent, as one would expect of a writer with some experience in criticism, and enjoyable for its evocation of places, especially Harry's modest but beloved refuge at Burragate, and for its wit. Harry elucidates the courtroom code of respect very neatly:
'with respect' means 'You're wrong judge'; 'with great respect' means 'How could you get it so wrong, judge?'; 'with the greatest respect' means ' The Court of Appeal will crucify you for that'; and 'with unfeigned respect' means 'How did you ever get to be a judge? Are you having an affair with the Attorney-general?'
The adventures of Harry Curry might not be suitable reading for students of the technical side of the law. Some of the concessions Curry wrings from the bench are controversial and some seem quite unlikely. On the other hand, Littlemore's fiction should be essential reading for students of the ethics, politics and sociology of legal practice. General readers will be pleased that the series is bound to continue. Indeed entirely new challenges await Harry and Arabella. At Burragate as they watch 'in companionable silence' a family of red kangaroos grazing, Arabella reveals that there are three of them, not counting Mozart.
Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. He holds a PhD in political science and has had articles and reviews published in various newspapers, periodicals and journals. He contributed a poem 'Evil equations' to an anthology of anti-war poems delivered to the Prime Minister on the eve of war.