Book Review: Punishment

punishment

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Punishment is a collection of a dozen short stories drawn from the author’s long career as a criminal defence lawyer. Unlike many true crime writers – if that is where this book could fit – his prose is written in a factual style that avoids foreshadowing as a device to build tension. The narrative is kept crisp and cool, providing necessary detail but avoiding salacity.

Tales are told from a variety of perspectives including: victim, perpetrator, legal representative. Sometimes the boundaries blur. The justice system is not always just – evidence must be sufficiently strong and procedures adhered to. Punishments for crimes committed are not always meted out by the courts. A ruling that frees a person to commit further harm can come to haunt those working for the judiciary.

Background to characters is provided adding nuance and depth to their subsequent emotional reactions. For many of the protagonists these are coloured by traumas in childhood. Although appearing to move beyond these and make a good life for themselves, they unravel under pressure of the events being recounted.

The collection opens with a case involving a lay judge who is required to preside over an allegation of domestic violence. The evidence she hears affects her badly, putting at risk the required impartiality of the court.

The second story focuses on a successful lawyer whose career is derailed following the acquittal of a father accused of abusing his children. The lawyer falls into addiction before trying to pull himself together to help a client accused of killing her husband. He receives help in this endeavour from a shadowy source.

Many of the cases are both sad and disturbing. All are fascinating under the author’s skilfully rendered discourse. The length of each story varies but all are told succinctly with impressive clarity.

One of the more unusual tales is ‘Lydia, in which a lonely, middle aged man finds comfort in a way many may mock or condemn. The ruling of the court in this case demonstrates an empathy that is rare alongside insight into needs within relationships.

“Falling in love is a very complex process. Initially, we’re not in love with the partner themselves, but with the image we create of them. The critical phase of every relationship begins when reality catches up…”

The Small Man is quite a roller coaster of a story. Its whiplash ending offers a glimpse of the author’s dry wit.

What is clear from these cases is how strangely perturbing some people’s thought processes and behaviour can be beneath a conventional veneer. A previously caring and successful man develops dangerous proclivities after watching his wife give birth to their child. A retiree takes revenge on neighbours when they come to represent change to a place he has worked all his life in order to hold static. There are tales of revenge within unequal marriages. There are children who escape rigid familial environs only to find freedom is not what they dreamed of.

The crimes committed are serious but it is the circumstances that surround them that provide most interest. Facts are presented rather than judgements.

The collection closes with ‘The Friend’, a story written in a much more personal style than previous entries. Narrated in the first person, it is a poignant and powerful appraisal of what little of substance remains after all the effort poured into achieving what may be outwardly regarded as success.

“I thought a new life would be easier, but it never did get easier. It’s just the same, whether we’re pharmacists or carpenters or writers.”

As so many of these stories demonstrate, personal effort can be derailed by unfulfilled desire, and by the actions of others – rarely predictable, and giving rise to emotions it can be a challenge to control.

Any Cop?: Although offering a somewhat negative view of humanity, the stories remain reflective and engaging. A book I devoured eagerly. An impressive page-turner with substance and bite.

Jackie Law

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