Fatal Proof (Benson and de Vere #4), by John Fairfax

Seven stars

John Fairfax is back with another novel, mixing courtroom drama with some investigative work that is sure to keep the reader busy trying to process things. With a great burden lifted from William Benson’s shoulders, he can focus much of the attention on defending those who are accused of serious crimes but profess their innocence. His newest client is the daughter of a crime boss who has been accused of murdering her father’s fixer. While Benson knows little of the underworld, though he spent time in prison, he will defend Karmen Naylor as best he can. It will take finesse and some dedication, but Benson feels there could be a few ideas he can try for the jury. Meanwhile, Tess de Vere has been chasing a case of her own, which includes venturing into the long settled Britain-IRA skirmishes to look at some admissions a former soldier made about murderous raids during the height of the clash. Might there be some legal work to undercover there as well? Fairfax uses these two cases to fuel the momentum on his current novel, which does not seem to have the same edge or sharpness of the previous three, but there is something there worth grasping.

While William Benson has always said that he would help anyone in trouble with the law, he has one caveat; they must profess innocence. Much like what happened to him, Benson hopes to be able to help those who are unable to mount their own defence in a court system that is happy to eat the accused alive. Benson’s latest client is Karmen Naylor, who is the estranged daughter of a London crime boss with deep connections and enemies all over the place. Karmen is accused of killing her father’s fixer in order to stake out some of her own claim on the business. While Karmen is certain of her innocence, the world of gangs and underworld dealings is one that Benson will have to sift through in order to prepare a meaningful defence.

While Benson uses much of his time doing this, his legal partner, Tess de Vere, has been trying to process much of the news surrounding Benson’s definite innocence for a murder he was convicted of twenty years ago. The evidence and actual murderer came to light, leaving Benson free from any guilt. Tess must now process the feelings she has had for him during that time, free from the impediment that he may be guilty. This is not as easy as it may seem, which is why Tess is tossing herself into the case of a former solider’s admission to mass killing back in the 1970s, when the IRA-British clash was at its height, colloquially called The Troubles. Still, there is something going on that does not ring true for Tess, forcing her to turn over as many stones as she can to get to the honest truth. Should she be letting sleeping dogs lie or delve deeper to allow the truth to play out?

While Benson navigates through the trial, he’s tossed a wrench and a new charge, which must be defended before the jury can render its verdict. This is one case that can have no easy solution, particularly when Benson has been threatened to steer it in a certain direction. He works his magic while keeping his pride in check, hoping that it will also ensure he does not risk his life. All the while, Tess discovers something she did not expect and is left with shattered dreams that she must collect, in hopes of coming to terms with the truth. Fairfax packs a punch with this one, though the impact is less than I have seen in previous novels.

In all my years of reading, I have come to understand that authors are human beings as well. As such, they have good days and bad, which is to be expected. John Fairfax has had three stunning novels, all full of tense legal drama and wonderful multi-pronged storytelling, but this novel came up a little short for me. It would seem that all the drama outside the courtroom (Benson’s guilt for a 1999 murder, the politician who sought to strip him of access to the Bar, and his mentor’s secret) being resolved has made for less impactful periphery storytelling, which left all eyes on the courtroom. When Fairfax presented readers with a strong legal matter, it was to be expected that the case would sizzle and the plot would thicken from there. However, there were moments of plain neutrality throughout. Fairfax does well with the narrative approach, leading the reader through the matters of a murder and a woman falsely accused. However, things did not ramp up from there, but rather took a sideways approach. Crime bosses and criminal enterprises have the potential to be stellar, but this one seems to have fallen flat. Add to that, the narrative approach fro Tess de Vere’s storyline, which was decent at the outset, but lost its thread as well. Decent characters and some understated plot lines kept readers cruising towards the end, awaiting the monumental twist that would create a legal surge. It did not come for me, though I sought it out. I can only wonder if all the spark ended too soon in the last novel, meaning there was nothing to buoy the mediocre case throughout the entire reading experience. We all have our off days and I am eager to see how John Fairfax will bounce back, as William Benson has a lot more to give and series fans can surely handle more courtroom drama!

Kudos, Mr. Fairfax, for a decent addition to the series. I look forward for your return to form soon!