Book Review: The Lighterman

The Lighterman, by Simon Michael, is the third book in the author’s Charles Holborne series of crime thrillers (I review the first two here and here). Set in 1960s London, in and around the historic law courts at the Old Bailey, Holborne is once again working as a barrister from chambers where his Jewish heritage is disdained. Family background is an important backdrop to the story. The key case being dealt with involves Holborne’s cousin, Izzy, with whom he worked on the Thames during the Second World War.

Following events from the previous intalments in the series, Holborne is on the Kray twins death list. The metropolitan police are unwilling to help as they still believe Holborne was complicit in the murder of his wife and therefore deserves whatever comes his way. With blackmail and bribery rife on both sides of the law he must risk all to save Izzy and himself.

Holborne is in a relationship with Sally who is unhappy with being sidelined when work continually demands her lover’s time and attention. Despite a tentative reconciliation with his family, his harpy mother’s continuing complaints about his life choices remain a thorn in Holborne’s side.

I began to understand some of the bad feeling harboured against Jews, that it is their rejection of assimilation, a refusal to accept a different way of living for the next generation, just as is the case for many other orthodox religions. Holborne chose to break away but cannot shake the feelings of guilt this has caused, stoked by his mother’s criticism. These personal conflicts are well presented within the context of a fast moving plot.

With Ronnie Kray determined to punish Holborne and a judge eager to support the river police, one of whom Izzy is accused of murdering, Holborne is forced to take matters into his own hands. He puts his career in danger to gather his evidence and must then go to court and give the performance of his life. This representation of a barrister’s role and thought processes remains a highlight as in the previous books.

The writing throughout is slick and engaging, the plot well developed with a strong sense of time and place. The ending sets up an interesting dilemma for subsequent intalments in the series to explore.

On a personal level I struggled to warm to the protagonist. Holborne is described as strong and muscular, able to hold his own in a fight. He works out by running and boxing. He has a high sex drive. Although portrayed as a tough, east end lad made good, with a moral compass that isn’t as strong as he would like where justice, as he sees it, is involved, his exploits reminded me too much of the typical male, all action hero. I had to remind myself that this was 1960s Britain and women were even more objectified than today. Sally is no shrinking violet but Holborne’s interest in her appears largely sexual and selfish.

An enjoyable read for those who like their heroes physically strong, their justice warriors slightly flawed. It is a well written page turner strengthened by its setting within the rarefied world of the courts of law.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

This post is a stop on The Lighterman Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Author Interview: Simon Michael

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Today I am delighted to welcome Simon Michael to my blog. Simon is the author of ‘The Brief’ (which I review here) and ‘An Honest Man’ (which I review here).

1. You have done what so many writers dream of and had your novel published. How have you found this experience?

Like many of the Urbane authors, this is not my first experience of being published. I was published by large traditional publishing houses in the 1990s, WH Allen and St Martin’s Press. On my return to writing I found that the publishing world had changed completely in the intervening 25 years. In the traditional model, which until recent years had no alternative (except, perhaps, vanity publishing) you gave your cherished baby, the work on which you had dedicated months or years of your life, to the publishers in return for an advance on royalties and they did exactly what they pleased with it. You had little or no say in blurb, jacket design, marketing, advertising or pricing. Many of us found it to be a poor experience, and I know even well-established and highly regarded writers who felt let down by the process. We produced commodities, books, for the publishers to dispose of as they thought fit.

The advent of the Internet has changed all that. The polar opposite to the traditional publishing model is self-publication, and anyone can do it and have their book available on Amazon and similar formats within hours. The downside is that it joins millions of other self-published books, and even if it’s brilliant it may never attract a readership.

Urbane Publications offers an intermediate model whereby publisher and author work together in partnership. Profits are divided much more equally (although there is usually no advance) and decisions are taken jointly. When it works, it is a very empowering experience but it depends on the personal relationship between author and publisher which may not always be problem-free, and authors have to expect success to come more slowly, if it comes at all. Small independent publishers cannot afford large sums of money for marketing or publicity.

2. Urbane require collaboration with authors in marketing their books. Has this worked out as you expected?

My part has been more demanding, but also more fun, than I expected. I have designed and produced posters, travelled with a suitcase up and down the country to bookshops, sold the concept and persuaded them to stock the books, and contacted scores of libraries, book groups and bookshops to secure speaking engagements and signing sessions. I am presently involved in arranging a photo shoot for a life-size poster of me wearing court robes and carrying a shot gun!

Urbane have opened doors for me, by getting me onto panels at literary festivals for example, and they have been excellent at managing the pricing and offers on Amazon, something I wouldn’t have been able to do without help.

One of Matthew Smith’s particular strengths lies in cover design; some of his covers for the fiction books have been outstanding and have attracted a great deal of enthusiastic social media comment.

3. Have you done many live author events and, if so, do you enjoy them?

To date I have had approximately 10 speaking engagements, I have 4 more in the diary before Christmas, and will organise more in the New Year. I am aiming at speaking at least twice a month.

I do enjoy them very much. 37 years’ at the Bar and singing in an R&B band allowed full rein to my love of performance, and I didn’t think through the fact that, when I retired to write full-time, that part of my personality would no longer find expression. In fact this is even better. My talks are developing into a “one-man show” with anecdotes from life at the Bar, some personal history as well as insights into the period of the novels (1940s and 1960s) and readings from the books. I am even thinking of adding some music from the periods.

4. What is your approach to the on line reviews of your book?

Fortunately I have only had one poor review, a 2* review on Amazon by someone who had obviously never read the book. You read about competitor authors putting poor reviews on Amazon, and it is my guess that this was an example, so I should probably feel flattered that they saw me as serious competition.

More generally however I often reply thanking the reviewer because I know it takes time and effort to give a review, and few reviewers appreciate the difference it makes to profile and sales. Although all of the reviews of The Brief were 5* and 4* (with the exception of the one referred to above) several reviewers had interesting insights as to the pacing of the first half of the book, and in those cases I have replied agreeing with them and have borne the criticism in mind in the later books.

I enjoy having a dialogue with my readers, and I recognise that I am still learning my trade, so insightful analysis by literate readers is invaluable.

5. When asked what you do, do you describe yourself as a writer?

I have begun to describe myself as a writer but I’m still a bit shy to do so, because it smacks of arrogance and, of course, very few people have heard of me as yet. If, as is often the case, the response is “Oh, have I heard of you?” the inevitable reply “Probably not” is a bit deflating. But my agent is working on a lead regarding a TV series, and hopefully that will all change.

6. Are you going to do this again – is there another novel in the pipeline?

There is indeed, at least three and probably more. The reviews suggest, and I believe, that I’m getting better as a writer as I learn my trade, and the third book, The Lighterman, is complete. It will be published in May 2017, and the consensus is that it’s the strongest so far.

The fourth novel is already part-written. The Charles Holborne series is a long way from the psychological thrillers or police procedurals of which there are so many exponents at present. This series is about a particular man, Charles Holborne, something of a maverick barrister with a background as a boxer and criminal himself. I throw him into the turmoil of the gangland culture of 1960s London, the corrupt police and the biased judiciary. They are thrillers, with a crime/mystery at their heart, and often courtroom scenes on the way, but Charles is on a moral and personal journey and therefore the series of books has a definite arc. He’s presently in the middle of that arc so there are several books to come, but when he’s finished his journey, assuming he survives, I will need to think carefully what to do next;

I want to avoid the stories becoming formulaic. The title of your blog “Never Imitate” is something I identify with closely. Most people who know me would say that I have never followed the path well-trod, and Charles Holborne is an extension of me.

Where my readers can find you

Website: simonmichael.uk

Facebook: Simon Michael (@simonmichael.uk)

Twitter: Simon Michael (@simonmichaeluk)

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Simon Michael was called to the Bar by the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple in 1978. In his many years of prosecuting and defending criminal cases he has dealt with a wide selection of murderers, armed robbers, con artists and other assorted villainy.

A storyteller all his life, Simon started writing short stories at school. His first novel (co-written) was published by Grafton in 1988 and was followed in 1989 by his first solo novel, The Cut Throat, the first of the Charles Holborne series, based on Simon’s own experiences at the criminal Bar. The next in the series, The Long Lie, was published in 1992. Between the two, in 1991, Simon’s short story “Split” was shortlisted for the Cosmopolitan/Perrier Short Story Award. He was also commissioned to write two feature screenplays.

Simon then put writing aside to concentrate on his career at the Bar. After a further 25 years’ experience he now has sufficient plots based on real cases for another dozen legal thrillers.

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‘The Brief’ and ‘An Honest Man’ are published by Urbane Publications, and are available to buy now.

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Book Review: An Honest Man

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An Honest Man, by Simon Michael, is a courtroom drama set in 1960s London. It is the second book in the author’s Charles Holborne series which started with The Brief (reviewed here). The Kray twins feature so there is plenty of scheming and gangland violence, but at the heart of the story is the English legal system and the corruption that exists on both sides of the law.

A year after events recounted in The Brief, Holborne has fallen from grace. The previously up and coming barrister has been in a new chambers for many months but is still struggling to attract instructions. With his finances in the doldrums he is reluctantly considering a change in career that would enable him to pay his bills.

The book takes some time to get going. There are a large number of shady characters to get to know before Holborne is handed the case that has the potential to pull him from the mire – defending a solicitor, Harry Robeson, who is known to represent powerful criminals and who stands accused of involvement in a diamond heist. Holborne and Robeson share a similar background as Jews raised in the East End of the city. When Robeson decides to help Holborne in a family crisis, their relationship becomes more personal.

As in the previous book, the workings of the law and the courtroom scenes are well developed and make for fascinating reading. Holborne comes into his own when cross examining a witness and managing a jury. His legal colleagues are still wary of his religion and lack of social connections more typical in their profession, especially given his previous brush with the wrong side of the law. However, he is good at his job and this case gives him the chance to prove it. What he had not, perhaps, factored in was the lengths to which the powerful gangs would go to protect their own.

The narrative is fluent and entertaining. Certain scenes with Holborne’s girlfriend were a little too graphic for my tastes but they are asides in a tale of corruption and the steps some will take to achieve what they regard as justice.

The denouement was chilling leaving plenty of scope for a sequel. I will be interested to see where the author takes Holborne next.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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Book Review: The Brief

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The Brief, by Simon Michael, brings to mind various vintage crime series that I have enjoyed watching on TV over the years. It is set in 1960s London, a period when the roads in central London could be driven through with relative ease and public payphones were a necessary aid to communication. The workings of the courts of law, with barristers’ chambers and their rarefied procedures, provide a fascinating backdrop at variance to the more common use of clever detective.

Charles Holborne, is an up and coming barrister willing to take on cases representing base criminals and lowlifes, much to the chagrin of his well connected colleagues. He was raised a Jew in the East End of the city, another factor that sets him apart. His beautiful wife, Henrietta, is from a wealthy and titled family but has grown bored with her hard working husband who she married as an act of defiance to her philandering father. Now she too indulges in affairs.

The story opens with the release from prison of a career criminal with few scruples. He plans a heist which he believes will enable him to retire. When it all goes wrong, Charles is tasked with defending him and his accomplice. It is just another case for Charles, but creates a dangerous enemy.

Back at chambers there are rumblings of discontent. An older member is called to account for his treatment of a pretty, young clerk. Other members voice resentment that a Jew is enjoying increasing success with the financial benefits this brings, which they believe should be theirs. Henrietta has been openly flirting with more than one of her husband’s colleagues. The choices she makes result in heated exchanges.

I have never understood anti-Semitism, how Jews appear to be so widely disliked by segments of society when their supposed crimes appear to be little more than nepotism and financial success. As these are also prevalent amongst society’s most privileged I find their rancour hard to comprehend. Nevertheless, it exists and affects this story’s protagonist. When Charles finds himself framed for murder it is hard to know which of his enemies, from which sphere of society, has taken action.

The police desire speedy convictions and some are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their aims. When Charles realises that the crime he is accused of will not be properly investigated he determines to find out what has happened for himself. His methods may be risky but with the death penalty still a potential punishment he feels he has nothing to lose.

The tale is fast moving. The writing is polished and flows with ease. The author has taken real case notes and court documents as inspiration. The narrative from inside the courts are a fine addition to the tale.

The evocation of time and place are a reminder of how far we have progressed in just a few decades, and also of how certain attitudes have not changed. I am looking forward to reading more of Charles Holborne’s exploits as the proposed series progresses.

I enjoyed this book and am happy to recommend it. An absorbing and entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Urbane.

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