Corrupted is the fourth novel in the 1960s London crime series written by Simon Michael. Its predecessors were The Brief (2015), An Honest Man (2016) and The Lighterman (2017). Each has, as its central character, Charles Holborne. Corrupted is good – very good – but let’s first take a look at the real life events which form the backdrop to the story.
Whichever definition you choose, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Kray twins and their misdeeds have become the stuff of legend. The villains who were minor fragments in their constellation have made an honest living – of a sort – by producing ghost-written autobiographies. There are popular websites which are nothing more than broadside ballads featuring the Bethnal Green brothers. The real life twins Gary and Marin Kemp played them on the wide screen, as did – more convincingly – a doppleganger Tom Hardy. They even appeared, as the Piranha Brothers, in a Monty Python sketch, although some would argue that this owed more to the equally diabolical Richardson brothers, inimical foes of Reg and Ron from south of the river. Authors such as Jake Arnott and John Lawson have used the twins in novels, and Simon Michael has added his four penn’orth with his Holborne stories.
Holborne was born Horowitz, son of an East End Jewish tailor. After an adventure-strewn youth working as a lighterman on the bustling River Thames in post-1945 London, he has become a successful barrister, having anglicised his name to smooth his way through the distinctly sniffy – and anti-semitic – world of London’s law chambers. Existing readers of the series will know that our man has already crossed swords with the dangerous and vengeful Krays.
It is 1964, and Alec Douglas-Home’s Conservative government is on its last legs. The sex scandals which brought down his predecessor Harold Macmillan may have faded, but another one threatens to be just as explosive. Holborne is persuaded to defend a teenage boy accused of murdering one of the Krays’ stooges, but the fact that the youngster is what we would now call a rent boy sees Holborne accused of bringing his chambers into disrepute.
As Holborne digs deeper into the affair, he realises he is touching the tip of a scandal which, if exposed, will have devastating political consequences. The fact that important figures in both the Conservative party and the Labour opposition are involved means that the barrister is pitting himself not just against Reg and Ron Kray, but the entire British establishment.
Corrupted is a brilliant piece of historical crime fiction, and the court room scenes, which are both intriguing and authentic, are informed by Simon Michael’s career and experience as a barrister in the criminal courts. Many real life figures play a part in the drama: the Krays – particularly the psychotic Ron – are totally convincing; Bob Boothby and Tom Driberg, both dripping corruption, send a shiver of revulsion down the spine, while the larger-than-life figure of Lord ‘the Blessed Arnold’ Goodman is horribly oily and manipulative.
Charles Holborne is a powerful and attractive central figure, but he is far from perfect. His chaotic private life reveals both passion and weakness. His judgement of human character also leaves something to be desired, as Simon Michael (right) shows, with a delicious and unexpected plot twist in the final pages of the novel. Corrupted is published by Urbane Publications and will be available on 21st June.