- - Thursday, December 15, 2016



By Michael Robertson

Minotaur, $24.99, 272 pages

It isn’t just the murder which captures your attention in this sophisticated romp of a mystery. It’s the weapon. Why? Because it’s a cricket bat owned by a man considered England’s greatest cricketer.

The charge that he used the precious bat to beat his wife to death upsets the investigating detectives more than his crime. Chief Inspector Wembley of Scotland Yard doesn’t want to look at the bloodstained bat because “his heart was breaking” at the thought that Liam McSweeney was not only guilty but would not play again for England.

It seems appropriate that a summons to jury duty at the Old Bailey for the McSweeney trail is delivered to the Baker Street address of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. He is of course no longer in residence but other legal minds are.

This is a delectable mystery elegantly written and peopled by characters who are erudite and witty and fun. Michael Robertson has done a splendid job of setting his stage and populating it, and if all of this isn’t enough there is added piquancy in a slice of Sherlock Holmes. And there is probably no more fascinating scenario for a dramatic case than a famous court and the juries who play a riveting role in the theater of crime.

What makes this trim little book especially engaging is the unexpectedness of its developments. There is a remarkable rapport between the judge and his jurors that he on one occasion compares to herding cats. It isn’t the kind of jury you would expect to be picked at random. There is an alternate juror who keeps interrupting and who turns out to be a street busker who found his summons in the street. There is Lucy the charming young woman who has two tattoos that turn out to be tied to cricket. They fascinate Nigel Heath, a solicitor who passes for a version of Sherlock Holmes when he isn’t trying to figure out the flowers that can barely be seen on Lucy’s rump. When the jury moves out of the courthouse to a remote beach house owned by the great cricketer McSweeney the casualty rate goes up. One juror has already died from the pasta in the courthouse canteen and two more are destined to die as the judge goes to remarkable lengths to identify who is telling the truth and about what.

The surprises go on and on, surprising even the judge who thinks he has seen everything when it comes to juries. About whom he has strong feelings. This is a judge who loves juries and wants them to be let alone, free of round-the-clock television and nonstop phone coverage. He is aware that every tabloid in the country is expressing outrage that he has not granted an early defense motion to dismiss the charges against McSweeney the famous cricketer because he claimed an alibi. The purpose of a jury was to be just, no more than that, the judge reflects, although he has suffered from the public outrage over his failing to placate the public. He thought the jury should be left alone.

In the McSweeney case what the jury goes through in the course of its deliberations is what few juries ever go through and it makes marvelous reading. They face potential death by drowning as they seek to ascertain where a witness saw McSweeney in roaring surf. One is found with an ax in his head that cannot be attributed to natural causes. And most delightful is the denouement to the whole confection. The last sentence is practically worth the whole book and the reader will be glad to have waited for it.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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