A Case to Answer, by Edgar Lustgarten

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These days Edgar Lustgarten (1907-78) is better known as a television personality and true crime historian than a novelist but his first novel A Case to Answer, published in 1947, has its merits.  It follows the trial for murder of Arthur Groome, accused of killing a Soho prostitute.  A family man with a loving wife, Groome had formed an unhealthy attachment to Kate Haggerty, a woman from Liverpool who had moved to London for better prospects but who had been reduced to streetwalking.  When she is found in her room bludgeoned, stabbed and partially dismembered, reports of his jealousy at her refusal to abandon her lifestyle and his occasional outburst of violent speech make him a prime suspect.  His account of his movements between leaving work and discovering the body with Kate’s landlady is unreliable, even suspicious, so it is unsurprising he finds himself in the dock.

But is he really guilty?  There are hints from the start he may not be, and these are strengthened as the case proceeds.  Lustgarten shows how circumstantial evidence can be misleading.  At one point Groome confesses to having lied and says in mitigation that the truth sounds so false it would not be believed: better a plausible lie than an implausible truth when one’s life is at stake.  The defence asks the jury if they have ever been in the position of having a situation misunderstood by a third party.  The prosecution asks if anything Groome has said can be believed.  Unfortunately the volume of indirect evidence, added perhaps to distaste for the relationship with a prostitute which had had a sexual component, is enough to convict Groome, and the ultimate sentence is passed.

However, as Lustgarten indicates, circumstantial evidence is not necessarily the whole truth, and can lead the expert astray when making deductions based on incomplete information.  The prosecution blithely assumes that in a capital crime anyone with relevant information would have come forward, but Lustgarten then shows that such is not always the case, for understandable reasons.  A shady restaurateur who could have given Groome an alibi for the period when the murder took place holds back, as does a dancer who had been a friend of Kate’s and who could have supported Groome’s contention that the penknife used in the stabbing had been in Kate’s possession, as Groome claimed.  They both have their own reasons for not coming forward, mostly to do with not wanting police scrutiny of their own activities, or having old events raked up, so they let it go, putting their own interests above the accused’s.

Not helping matters, the police investigation is woeful.  It is established that the victim was subjected to an attack using three different weapons – a blunt instrument, a small knife, which is recovered, and a sharp thin blade.  The blunt instrument is not referred to at all during the trial and no mention is made of a search for it.  The sharp knife is mentioned in passing but again little is made of it, until the defence barrister points out that as he believes his client to be innocent, the real murderer must still have it (not necessarily of course, it could be in the river).  Forensic analysis is lacking and the defence makes no reference to the fact that far from having a few spots of blood on his suit, which Groome could account for by having knelt by the body once it had been found, he would have been covered in it had he been responsible for such a violent act.  Lustgarten’s interest is on the mechanics of the trial and the individuals involved, not the processes of crime detection, and the treatment of the police and medical participation is cursory.

The major pleasure of the book is the courtroom atmosphere Lustgarten evokes, based on his experience as a barrister, giving the novel a feeling of verisimilitude.  He uses the trial as a framework upon which to examine the personalities of various individuals involved in the proceedings, from the judge and opposing counsels (the prosecuting barrister keen to return to his commercial work) to the press, the spectators, Mrs Groome (an unrealistically devoted spouse considering her husband’s foolishly disloyal actions) and even Kate’s father, an unsentimental man for whom the trial is something of a holiday up in the big city.

Groome is hanged, still protesting his innocence, but there is a twist.  Just as the execution takes place the Home Secretary receives a lengthy statement purporting to come from the real murderer.  This shows the writer to have modelled himself on Jack the Ripper, his aim to conduct a moral crusade against prostitutes and indicating that the prosecution of Groome was an act of stupidity on the part of the authorities.  The Home Secretary dismisses the letter as a hoax, but the novel concludes back in Soho at 9am, as he has finished reading and just as Groome is hanged.  The final words echo the opening, with a door gently opening.

Clearly the killer has struck again so it is only a matter of time before the hapless Groome’s innocence is proved – but too late for him.  This is an anti-capital punishment novel showing how easy it is to arrive at a verdict which seems sound but is based on faulty suppositions.  The procedural aspects may creak, but Lustgarten still manages to convey the pitfalls of returning a murder conviction where there were no eyewitnesses and the evidence is not sufficient to bear the interpretation imposed upon it.  Groome may have had a case to answer in the eyes of the law, but the authorities have an even bigger one in sanctioning capital punishment.

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