Alex your book, The Night Lawyer which was released last year to rave reviews, is about a female barrister working at the Criminal Bar who is also a newspaper libel lawyer by night. As a barrister yourself, how did you make the leap to becoming a thriller writer, and was writing a book something that you had always planned to do?
I had always wanted to write and the Criminal Bar and the Inns of Court provide very fertile ground for a writer of fiction. When you are involved in a criminal trial you find yourself suddenly parachuted into someone else’s life, into someone else’s drama. You are alongside them as they go through what may be the worst crisis of their life, so there is as a consequence an endless supply of inspiration available. My desire to write a novel was sparked partly by frustration at the endless cut-backs to criminal justice which I felt were threatening to undermine the fairness intrinsic to the British legal system. Technical systems would fail, prisoners would not be produced, witnesses were not being warned to attend, cases would collapse because there was no court available to hear the trial, and I felt that the whole system was creaking to a standstill. Writing was a way of coping with the frustration. There was another inspiration however which was far more personal. Before I was married I was stalked by a violent serial rapist who was the defendant in a trial I was in at the Old Bailey. He managed to track me down in my home where I lived alone in a one bedroom flat. He threatened to murder me and I thought that I was going to die. Writing The Night Lawyer does explore the theme of stalking and how vulnerable lawyers can sometimes be if they cross paths with a psychopath and I found writing about that and basing it loosely on my own experience strangely therapeutic.
Given your previous career would you say that your protagonist, Sophie Angel, is semi-autobiographical or indeed, did you make a conscious effort to make her character quite the opposite of yours?
I think inevitably she is a little like me, we are both half Russian after all. But I am not similarly weighed down by anxiety. Those emotions belong more to my own mother and can be traced back to her traumatic childhood in Russia and linked to her constant expectation that something even worse is heading down the track. Sophie in The Night Lawyer is at the beginning of a journey. We meet her when she is at her most trusting and very much in love with Theo, her husband. She also loves and trusts her father, the testing of that trust and the fear of betrayal is one of the themes of the book. I think I am more sceptical by nature and perhaps by the end of the book I think Sophie has become more like me. Inevitably a fictional barrister is bound to be a slightly idealized version of a real barrister, consistently more fluent and confident, with a quick quip at the ready. But something that I have always tried to do is stand up to quasi bullying from judges and other members of the Bar and this is an element of my own character which she reflects.
Did you discover any parallels or shared skill sets between your profession as a criminal barrister and that of a thriller writer?
In different ways both barristers and novelists are story-tellers, pulling together diverse strands to create a narrative that can be understood and to get the listener or reader to empathise with someone else. Both careers rely on understanding psychology, especially the psychology of people who terrorise others. And, of course words and the use of words are absolutely at the heart of both professions.
What does a typical writing day look like for you; do you keep to a strict schedule or do you like to work when inspiration strikes?
I’m afraid I don’t really have a typical writing day. When I first got the idea for The Night Lawyer I was in full-time practice at the Criminal Bar. Being a courtroom lawyer does involve a huge amount of time travelling, hanging about waiting for a case to start or a jury to return a verdict. You can’t open confidential files on public transport, not just because at times there may be gruesome photographs of crime scenes in your brief but also a lot of the instructions are highly sensitive. So I would use the time to sketch out my characters and plot. I would sit quietly in a corner of the robing room and write. These days I find I work far more efficiently in the morning and try to get as much writing done before lunch as possible, but if inspiration does strike I need to get to my desk as quickly as possible and will keep writing until I have to go to sleep
When it comes to reading, what type of books and authors are you personally drawn to? Do you have a penchant for thrillers?
I read voraciously and I do love thrillers but I also love historical fiction, I adore the dazzling Hilary Mantel but I also love CJ Sanson’s Shardlake series which is about a barrister during Tudor times, and brilliantly evokes the sights and sounds and smells of London during the reign of Henry VIII. I admire Carl Hiaasen who is also an outstanding investigative journalist who writes razor-sharp satire that makes me laugh out loud, whilst wincing at the political corruption he exposes and its effect on the eco-system in Florida. I think that Michael Connelly is probably one of the best crime writers in America. He used to be a court reporter which shows in his sparse but gripping prose. Connelly is a natural story teller, and the detective Harry Bosch a creation of genius.
The Inner Temple and Inns of court are almost like characters in their own right in The Night Lawyer, and you really manage to evoke and capture the sense of rich history most beautifully. Was this deliberate and how did you manage to achieve this?
That is a really interesting observation and very kind of you. A good crime novel depends on plot and believable characters but also on a convincing sense of place so I have tried to weave in detail to anchor the story in its legal setting, noting things from the colour of the carpet in the robing-rooms, to the smell in the holding cells to the number of steps leading up to Middle Temple Hall, all of which I hope put the reader where they need to be. And I have spent all of my working life in and around the Temple so I found it easy to describe. On days when I had to go back to Chambers after a challenging time in Court there was something hugely comforting in thinking about the generations of black-clad lawyers who had worked there in the last ten centuries, probably each of them with hopes, ambitions and anxieties similar to mine. There is nowhere else in London than I can think of where such extraordinary architecture, history and atmosphere speaks for itself.
The Court scenes and dialogue are so believable in the book as could be expected given your expert knowledge and breadth of experience. When reading, it is easy to imagine a TV or film adaptation of The Night Lawyer particularly given its topical subject matter. Does it frustrate you as a viewer when you watch corny courtroom dramas and know that this would never happen in a real courtroom?
Absolutely. Sometimes I simply can’t bear to watch them. My pet howlers include seeing barristers in an English courtroom strolling around and marching up to the jury box as they do in America, barristers giving evidence as part of their cross-examination, barristers badgering a witness until they collapse, making up a defence and even dating a juror during a trial! As it happens we are very excited because the book has just been optioned for the film and TV rights, so one hopes that when it’s made it is howler-free.
One of the many important themes of the book is trial by social media. As society has changed so much with the reliance on social media and allegations can be confused with facts as soon as they make an appearance on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter etc. In your opinion, how has the the legal system navigated this change?
With difficulty. One of the worst aspects of social media is its enormous reach and the speed with which information and opinion can fly around the globe in seconds, often unchecked and unedited. It is a problem in two ways, firstly information available on social media may influence the jury (even though Judges always warn them not to look at social media during a trial) and make them prejudiced before the trial even begins. You only have to think of what happened to Leon Brittan, Paul Gambaccini, Caroline Flack and others who have been hounded on line to realize the destructive force behind unsubstantiated and untrue allegations and how social media can subvert due process with catastrophic consequences. Of course this does not just apply to social media, think of the dark arts used to get the Princess Diana interview on the BBC or the collusion between the police and the BBC to hound Sir Cliff Richard. The second problem is that the criminal justice system faces the huge challenge of dealing with the enormous volume of digital evidence generated by social media for both prosecution, defence, and the police. The police and CPS have to examine sometimes thousands of text and WhatsApp messages before a trial and inevitably important evidence sometimes gets lost or overlooked with disastrous results.
A barrister cannot defend anyone he or she knows to be guilty, a theme that is also explored in the book when Sophie turns down a defence. Has this ever happened in your own career and have you ever been proven wrong when someone you suspected was guilty wasn’t and vice versa?
The Bar code of conduct is very clear: ‘To promote fearlessly by all lawful means his lay client’s best interest’. Our overriding duty is to the court, and we cannot mislead the court by saying something that we know to be untrue. If someone tells me that they are guilty but still wants to fight the case I have a duty to withdraw unless I can persuade them to plead guilty. But there have been times that I have defended someone whose story seemed so preposterous that I have tried to persuade them to change their plea only for the evidence to come out during trial that showed they were telling the truth all along. It just goes to show the value of juries and that it is not for lawyers (or journalists) to decide who is and isn’t guilty.
The old world of Russia and the protagonist’s current life are woven together by an historically fascinating and moving series of events. Where does your interest in Russia originate?
My interest in Russia originates with my mother’s own history. When I was a child my mother would read wonderful Russian fairy stories to me about forest spirits, or beautiful little girls made of snow and frost and talking animals who were really Princes. Coming from a society where even good people could disappear for no reason she was also very superstitious. My mother was born in St Petersburg and her first language was Russian. But when she was a little girl her father and brothers were arrested and shot for being enemies of the state. My grandmother guessed that the soldiers would be coming for her next and she grabbed my mother and ran for the Estonian border some 200 kilometres away. My mother occasionally spoke of that terrible journey, the terror of hiding in the forest, the bitter cold and her fear of the starving wolves howling in the darkness. They reached safety and settled in Estonia but Estonia too fell under communism but by that time my mother was living in England. I learnt from my grandmother’s letters and very rare phone calls what it was like to live within a totalitarian state. In the Russian sub-plot Sophie’s Russian childhood comes into play, and we walk with her as she tries to solve the mystery surrounding her Uncle’s betrayal and death in Moscow. I feel that Russia, with its compromised judicial system, its extra-judicial killing, its imprisonment of political opponents, journalists and indeed lawyers provided a useful narrative thread and a contrast to our uncorrupted, and closely scrutinized courtrooms. I could not have anticipated that the events surrounding Alexei Navalny which have been splashed in headlines across the globe would so exactly mirror the points I tried to make in The Night Lawyer.
What’s next for Sophie Angel? Are you planning on writing another book in the series?
Well, in the next book Sophie will be defending a female client on a charge of murder, and Katie, the investigative journalist, will accompany Sophie to Moscow to do some fact finding, there will be more naughty Russians to deal with and Sophie may find love…
The Night Lawyer is published by Red Door Press. To purchase a copy, please visit here
For further information on The Night Lawyer and Alex Churchill please visit: www.alexchurchillbooks.com
All images, including leading image, by Chris Dawes.