FICTION: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Published May 2, 2021
Trial in session at ‘The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court’ — 1808 illustration by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, published in Volume 2 of The Microcosm of London: or, London in Miniature | Public Domain
Trial in session at ‘The Old Bailey, Known Also as the Central Criminal Court’ — 1808 illustration by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Pugin, published in Volume 2 of The Microcosm of London: or, London in Miniature | Public Domain

Sana Pirzada, author of the intriguing gothic romance novel The Rose Within and short story collection Vernon Hall and Other Stories, returns to enthral her readers, this time with a legal thriller set in Victorian London, in which the strenuous fight for truth and justice comes to the fore.

Departing somewhat from the genre of Pirzada’s previous works, Naomi Byron is an enticing piece of historical fiction, with a murder mystery at its heart, and with this classic whodunnit, Pirzada yet again proves her talent for exquisite storytelling.

The caliginous legal sphere of 19th century London lends the tale its picturesque quality and Pirzada — who studied law at King’s College and holds a masters degree in criminology and criminal justice from the London School of Economics and Political Science — efficiently uses the time and place to sketch and reveal the inadequacies and corrupt state of the English legal system. Prisoners, even the ones wrongfully accused, are left to rot in grimy cells, there is no room for clemency and public hangings are viewed as a sort of show before huge crowds.

The protagonist of the novel is Clyde Benedict, a barrister and renowned public defender who denounces the heinous state of crime and punishment in 1863 England and wishes for nothing more than for the truth to prevail, for the legal system to be revolutionised and for innocent souls to be given due justice.

He laments the dismal state of the English justice system in the opening pages of the book, explaining to readers what the “Dead Man’s Walk” refers to and contemplating on the true aim of justice: “Do we fight for a righteous cause and for the prisoner who pins all their hopes on us? Or do we stand in the Old Bailey in our wigs and our fancy robes merely to eclipse the efforts of the opposing counsel with our rodomontade and emerge as vain winners like gladiators fighting in the arena for glory?”

Clyde is traumatised by the loss of a previous case, where a defendant by the name of Susan Taylor was wrongfully accused of murdering her husband, resulting in her execution. Etched in Clyde’s mind is the memory of Susan in confinement, making him strive for change in a system that has repeatedly disappointed him. His strong sense of morality, compassion for the under-represented and his ability to see the truth for what it is, makes him a memorable character.

An enticing piece of historical fiction, with a murder mystery at its heart, once again showcases Sana Pirzada’s talent for exquisite storytelling

Clyde’s ambitions are even more intensified when he is made barrister for Naomi Byron, a beautiful young woman with auburn hair and sea-green eyes, who works and resides at the Lambeth Orphanage and who has been accused of murdering her potential employer, the crude Queen’s Counsel, Dominic Adler. Naomi’s love for those around her, resoluteness towards her innocence and her warm-heartedness captivate Clyde, making him determined to help her win her case at the formidable courtroom of Old Bailey.

As the trial is set to begin, Clyde enters the courtroom, nervous and stricken with terror by the memory of Susan Taylor, but somehow derives strength from Naomi’s resilience and his own firm faith in fairness. Witnesses are summoned and a series of questions and answers exposes the upper class’s hypocrisy and vengefulness, revealing gruesome secrets and ulterior motives that don’t cease to surprise even when we think we know who the killer is. Pirzada deserves full credit here for masterfully weaving the tale in such twists and turns that it becomes impossible to put the book down.

Pirzada paints a gripping scene of the trial. Naomi sits in the dock as the opposing counsel, Mr Matthew Rodgers, addresses the jury. Louisa Smith, the housekeeper at the murdered Dominic Adler’s residence, takes to the witness box. One by one, the side characters take centre-stage, each playing a major role in the unfolding of the mystery.

It is perhaps the strong characterisation — even of the minor players who, quite often, do not progress beyond a rudimentary, two-dimensional sketch — that makes Naomi Byron seem so believable, like the recounting of an incident that actually happened. And when Clyde begins to develop feelings for the alluring Naomi, what follows is a quest for love amidst a spellbinding murder spree, beckoning us to guess what will become of the two. Naomi and Clyde’s love story blooms in their altruism and one cannot resist rooting for the two protagonists.

Along with her knowledge of the English legal system, Pirzada’s descriptive language, sharp imagery and passionate dialogues, which invite a retrospective look at London during the 1800s, make her book very much a historical drama film in print form. For our modern era, when the genre of historical fiction is rampant in television shows and films, Naomi Byron succeeds as an entertaining book.

As suspicions arise as to who could possibly be behind Dominic Adler’s murder, Naomi’s character becomes more intriguing. She is a reflection of the social injustice that prevails in the sordid streets and lavish homes of Victorian London, where the poor are subjected to hard labour, prisoners treated with contempt and women looked upon as mere sexual objects.

At the launch event of her book, Pirzada said that she purposely chose to set the book in 1863 because that was the time when deficiencies in the legal system of England were at their peak. Public hangings were common, defendants were given limited rights and victims were at the mercy of a sensationalist media. The plot, thus, is a social commentary on the gruesome reality of crime and punishment at the time. In being so, it also finds significance in the modern era, where issues of similar intensity make headlines still.

It is clear that Naomi Byron stands for much more than someone wrongfully accused of a crime; the victim of a faulty system that upholds selfish desires and favours the privileged time and time again. The author’s prose is clean and direct in its accusations and, like a call to action, brings to light the problems plaguing society. A captivating thriller, it is an excellent read for those craving a good murder mystery.

The reviewer is a content development officer at Habib University

Naomi Byron: A Victorian Legal Thriller
By Sana Pirzada
Book Empire, UK
ISBN: 978-1913319496
228pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 2nd, 2021

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