Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the most challenging sorts of cases to investigate is the ‘he said/she said’ case. For one thing, the only two people who really know what happened may be the two parties to the case. For another, either (or both) may have reasons for not telling everything, or for outright lying. In those situations, it can be very difficult to get to the truth. And that can add tension and suspense to a crime novel. Let’s look at one such example today, and turn the spotlight on William Deverell’s Trial of Passion, the first of his Arthur Beauchamp series.
Beauchamp (pronounced BEE-cham) is a Vancouver attorney who’s recently retired to what he hopes is the peace and quiet of Garibaldi Island. He’s looking forward to getting away from the stress of a high-profile law firm, and the failure of his marriage. He’s no sooner installed in his new home when his former colleagues ask for his help. Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of law at the University of British Columbia, has been charged with rape. His accuser is a law student, Kimberley Martin. He’s been dissatisfied with his current lawyer (a colleague of Beauchamp’s), and insists that Beauchamp take over his case. At first, Beauchamp refuses. He’s finally persuaded, though, and travels back to Vancouver.
Both parties to the case agree on some things about the night in question. The Law Students’ Association (of which Martin is a member) held a dance to which several faculty members (including O’Donnell) were invited. After the dance, a group of people (including both parties) went on to another party, and then back to O’Donnell’s house. Both sides also admit that a lot of alcohol was consumed, and not just by the two people involved in the case.
After that, the stories diverge. Martin claims that she was raped, and there is evidence that she could be telling the truth. Certainly she ran out of O’Donnell’s house to the house next door, wearing nothing but a necktie, and with lipstick smeared on her, saying that she was raped. O’Donnell claims that he did not commit rape. After some time and a few half-truths, he admits that he and Martin had sex, but that it was completely consensual. And they tell different stories about who pursued whom in the days and weeks before the party. It’s the work of Beauchamp to defend O’Donnell, while Patricia Blueman serves as the prosecuting attorney. The case will be tried in Walter Sprogue’s courtroom.
In the meantime, Beauchamp has other problems. Life on Garibaldi Island takes getting used to, and learning to work with the other people on the island takes time. And there’s the matter of his soon-to-be ex-wife, Annabelle. The marriage is over, and both of them know it. But that doesn’t mean there’s no sadness about it.
Still, Beauchamp does his best to focus on the case. He’s a very skilled lawyer, but his opponent is no slouch herself. For both of them, it’ll be a matter of finding out as much as they can about each party’s history, character, and so on, and getting to the real truth about what happened. In the end, they do, but it’s not a simple case. Is Martin a rape victim, or a very accomplished actress? Is O’Donnell a rapist, or is he telling the truth in saying that Martin pursued him?
And getting to the truth is an important element in this novel. This is, in that sense, a legal mystery, so readers follow along as Beauchamp and his team talk to witnesses and potential witnesses, decide what their strategy will be, and so on. And there are plenty of courtroom scenes. Readers who like the drama of the courtroom will appreciate that.
And yet, the novel is not a fast-paced thriller. There are also plenty of scenes on Garibaldi Island, where Beauchamp learns to fit in with the other residents, gets used to his new home, and so on. There are several eccentric characters who make their home there, and Beauchamp gradually gets to know them and learn from some of their wisdom.
Much of the story is told from Beauchamp’s point of view (first person, present tense), so we learn quite a bit about his character. He’s a recovering alcoholic (nine years sober) who’s trying to start life over again. He certainly makes his share of mistakes (including in the courtroom), but he’s also a sharp strategist who’s earned his reputation. He’s honest with himself about his own failures, but readers who are tired of dysfunctional characters who wallow in sorrow will be pleased to know that he is not one of them. He’s got a certain wit, and a love of language. Here’s a bit of the scene as he’s first heading to Garibaldi:
‘Standing at the aft of the gender-confused vessel known as the Queen of Prince George, I can see forested clumps of land approaching. These comprise the islands beyond the great inland waterway of the Strait of Georgia, the cold salt moat behind which I shall find refuge from the city’s grasping fingers.’
He’s also quick-thinking, as a successful trial lawyer has to be.
Parts of the story are told through trial transcripts and case notes from sessions that O’Donnell and Martin have with their psychotherapists. Those notes reveal quite a lot about both characters. And we learn that both are much more complicated than it seems on the surface.
Trial of Passion is a ‘he said/she said’ story that plays out in a Vancouver courtroom, and features characters who are much more complex than they appear to be. It’s a legal mystery that allows readers ‘behind the scenes’ as a case is prepared and tried, and it introduces a shrewd attorney who has his own way of going about the job. But what’s your view? Have you read Trial of Passion? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 7 August/Tuesday, 8 August – Murder in the Marais – Cara Black
Monday, 14 August/Tuesday, 15 August – The Cemetery of Swallows – Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol
Monday, 21 August/Tuesday, 22 August – Corridors of Death – Ruth Dudley Edwards