The death in February of one of the titans of the Bar, John Mathew QC, cut another link with the post-war period of ebullient criminality and showy trials. Mathew defended one of the Great Train Robbers and David Holmes in the Jeremy Thorpe trials, and prosecuted the Krays and Harry Roberts. He remembered a period when you could park your car outside the Old Bailey and saunter through its grand main entrance unhindered by the tiresome security apparatus lawyers and members of the public are subject to today. But he also recalled a time when jury nobbling and police perjury were common.
Any study of the true-crime shelves of Waterstones shows that those years – from around 1945 to the late 1970s – was a glory period of English crime. It has yielded not just the usual diet of goggle-eyed – and very readable – books about gangland brutality and serial killing but enduring classics. Sybille Bedford’s account of the 1957 trial of the Eastbourne GP (and alleged mass-murderer) Dr John Bodkin Adams in The Best We Can Do and Ludovic Kennedy’s dissections of two infamous miscarriages of justice in Ten Rillington Place and The Trial of Stephen Ward are just three that stand out.
Over the last 50 years criminal law has been on a firm trajectory towards greater fairness, both for the prosecution and the defence. The death penalty was finally abolished in 1969. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 introduced mandatory recording of police interviews, putting an end to the practice of police 'verbals' – i.e. the invention of confessions. Judicial idiosyncrasy has been largely stamped out (remember the notorious remark of crusty old Mr Justice Melford Stevenson that a defendant had been found guilty only of a 'pretty anaemic kind of rape'). DNA testing and near-ubiquitous CCTV has created greater evidential exactitude. It has also made the corner of doubt – which the defendant must be accorded the benefit of – a less fruitful furrow for advocates.
Nowadays the great defender Marshall Hall’s favourite jury trick – swaying back and forth as he personified the scales of justice and then dropping one arm as it sunk under the metaphorical weight of the presumption of innocence – would be laughed out of court. Yet it seemed magnificent at the time.
But this path towards transparency and has been less fruitful for writers and journalists. The droves of crime-reporters permanently stationed at the Old Bailey in the fifties and sixties (motto: 'If it bleeds, it leads') are no more. In The Third Man Orson Welles’s Harry Lime famously contrasted Italy in the time of the Borgias ('they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance') with the peaceful democracy of Switzerland, which could only manage the cuckoo clock. Likewise, the preconditions of great trials – jeopardy, doubt, capriciousness, simply getting it wrong – have undoubtedly been undermined by the reforms of the last half century.
In fact, the golden era of English crime can arguably be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century, when genteel poisoning cases filled the newspapers. Part of the excitement of these trials was the sheer difficulty of proving cause of death (what led to the stomach cramps after the victim ate the gooseberry pie? etc). Scientific advances have meant that that problem – or opportunity – has now been largely closed down, whereas more liberal divorce laws and social attitudes have removed much of the incentive from middle-class murder. Nowadays Dr Crippen would simply set up in a flat with Ethel Le Neve rather than go to the trouble of administering his wife hyoscine before burying her under the basement.
After the death penalty had been abolished one writer wrote, distastefully but accurately, that murder trials 'had a distinct sense of coitus interruptus, like a bull fight without the kill.' The queues outside the Bailey grew shorter; the coverage waned. It is part of a wider conundrum: greater systemisation creates more certainty of outcome, the mortal enemy of narrative suspense.
But all is not lost: having vividly recreated for television the Jeremy Thorpe trial a couple of years ago, the director Stephen Frears turned his attention to a more recent cause célèbre, the case of the ‘coughing Major’, Charles Ingram in Quiz. Even in the face of the surveillance state human ingenuity will still find an outlet and succeed in weaving narratives of jeopardy and tension.