a series by
This is the first book in the Best Defence series, written in 2011/12 and showing its age slightly, especially as Linlithgow Sheriff Court is no longer to be found on the other side of the High Street from Robbie’s office, but ten miles to the south in the new town of Livingston.
My first attempt at a novel featured a protagonist called Tina Munro, whose personal circumstances and views of the world were not dissimilar to Robbie’s. Tina’s book, ‘The Truth the Whole Truth and Nothing Like the Truth’, did attract interest from a Scottish publishing house called Polygon, until, that is, a majority of the all-female commissioning team discovered that WHS McIntyre was a man and not a woman and therefore not qualified to write from a female perspective.
Now, I’m prepared to suffer for my art, but there are limits. So, I wrote another book starring, not Tina, but Robbie Munro. Whereas the plot in Tina Munro’s book had been entirely fictional, for ‘Relatively Guilty’ I used ideas from two murder cases I’d dealt with and a fictional plotline concerning an ex-IRA gangster out for revenge on Robbie’s brother.
The first murder concerned the death of a man we’ll call Eddie, because that was his name. I was introduced to Eddie by local solicitor, doyen of the Falkirk Criminal Bar, James Patrick ‘Paddy’ Imray, who asked me to deal with a drugs case in which Eddie was charged. Paddy was acting for the co-accused, and was concerned lest a conflict of interest arise. I went to see Eddie in Barlinnie. He was angry and belligerent, and demanding to know why Mr Imray wasn’t representing him. The only way I could placate him was to say that I’d go immediately and see the Procurator Fiscal to discuss his case and try my best to have Eddie released on bail when he returned to court for full committal the following week. As it happened, no sooner was I back at the office than the phone rang. It was the PF. ‘Are you acting for Eddie … now?’ he asked. I told him I was. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’m dropping the charges. There’s not enough evidence on him, so I’m ordering his immediate release.’
From then on Eddie thought I was the world’s best lawyer, a myth I did my best not to dispel. In the ensuing years, I acted for him in many cases, usually ones of domestic violence involving his wife Mags. I remember leaving court one afternoon following a case in which Eddie had been tried and acquitted, yet again, of assaulting his wife. Mags wasn’t too happy at the result and was waiting for me.
‘See you, ya bastard,’ she said, pointing a finger in my face. ‘If I ever get into bother, I’m having you for my lawyer.’ If it was intended as a threat, I’d had worse. As good as her word, two weeks later Mags killed Eddie, and I got the phone call from the police.
The circumstances leading up to Eddie’s death, were that Mags had been making soup. According to her, Eddie had come home drunk and dropped into a chair in front of the TV. When he called Mags through to the livingroom and started insulting her, she stabbed him between the shoulder blades with the nine-inch carving knife she’d been using to chop vegetables. It wasn’t a great defence. In fact, it wasn’t a defence at all, but what was there to lose? Plead guilty to murder and she’d get life imprisonment, go to trial and be found guilty and she’d still get life imprisonment. I explained to Mags the special defence of self-defence and she seemed to think that given her husband’s violent tendencies, maybe she’d been apprehensive that Eddie might hit her, and, that when he turned his head to talk to her, she’d reacted instinctively in self-defence. It was all I had, and so, in due course, a defence of self-defence was lodged.
On the morning of the trial, and completely out of the blue, the Advocate-depute prosecuting the case offered to drop the murder charge - providing Mags pled guilty to culpable homicide. This would mean that while she could still receive a life sentence, it wasn’t mandatory, and the judge would have discretion to impose a shorter or alternative sentence if it was thought the circumstances merited leniency.
We consulted with Bob Henderson Q.C. who I’d instructed for the defence. He asked what there was that could be said in mitigation should Mags take the plea on offer. On the face of it, he couldn’t see how stabbing one’s spouse in the back while he was sitting watching telly would at all mitigate towards leniency.
That was when I produced Mags’s medical records showing around twenty occasions when she had attended A&E due to violence at the hands of her late husband. (What I didn’t think needed mentioning was the times over the years that dead Eddie had been sent to hospital by Mags – it was that kind of relationship).
We were in the cell area of the High Court in Edinburgh; it being the late Nineties and murder-accused not eligible for bail. Bob Henderson thumbed through the medical records, and, once he was finished perusing, Mags asked him, ‘Mr Henderson, what do you think they’ll give me if I plead guilty?’
Bob Henderson stood up, tucked the medical records under his arm and started walking to the door as though the decision to plead guilty to culpable homicide had already been made. ‘Madam,’ he said, ‘by the time I’m finished, they’ll probably give you a bloody medal.’
There was no medal for Mags, but there was twelve months’ probation, which was just as good. I remember she came to see me the following week, so I could countersign her application for widow’s allowance.
The second murder case was even more tragic and concerned Frank, a sixteen-year-old, who had recently been released from care into the custody of his uncle and aunt. They were highly supportive and a good influence, and Frank was doing fine. It was unfortunate, then, for everyone when Frank’s estranged mother chose that moment to return to the area after years away. Her sister having moved out temporarily, Frank’s mum moved into her sister’s home just along the road from where Frank was living. Over a period of months, she lured him into her sordid lifestyle, plying him with drink and drugs, and making him watch while she performed sexual acts with the men she brought back to the house. No matter how hard his uncle and aunt tried, Frank was drawn to his mother, and became involved in a number of scrapes with the law while intoxicated. One night, while drunk, Frank stabbed his mother seventeen times and killed her. He carried on his life as normal for a couple of weeks, and no-one noticed anything untoward until the downstairs neighbours complained of a smell, and the police were called. The house was in a deplorable condition. The spare bedroom was entirely taken up by black binbags full of rotting rubbish. It wasn’t a small room, but there was not an inch of floorspace left. The police assumed this to be the source of the smell – not realising the body of Frank’s mum was stuffed in a cupboard in the same room. They didn’t even notice the huge blood stain on the bare floorboards in the livingroom or the trail that led from there to the spare bedroom. When eventually, something had to be done, and the rubbish cleared, the remains of Frank’s mum were discovered. The problem was that everyone assumed it was the body of her sister. They were similar in appearance, and it was the sister’s house after all. Who else could it be? The mistake in identification only came to light sometime later when the deceased’s sister returned from her time away, to discover that she was supposed to be dead.
Once again, I instructed Bob Henderson Q.C. for the defence. I also employed Scotland’s top forensic psychiatrist as an expert witness in an attempt to show Frank had been of diminished responsibility, and therefore not guilty of murder. Members of the jury wept as they heard of the lifestyle young Frank had endured courtesy of his mother. They wept even more during a heart-rending speech by Mr Henderson. But their tears weren’t enough. The viciousness of the attack, so graphically presented to the jury by the Crown, resulted in a majority verdict of guilty and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
I used these two cases as a basis for Relatively Guilty, along with a story about an ex-IRA man out to kill, the protagonist’s, Robbie Munro’s, brother. I entered the book for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012, and when it was short-listed, I thought I’d try and find a publisher.
First off I submitted to Canongate, who I mistakenly believed to be Ian Rankin’s publishers, and therefore knew a good book when they saw one. I sent oin a few chapters and synopsis and they asked for the complete manuscript. It might have been the 21st Century, but they wanted size 12 font on paper, double-spaced and with one-inch margins. That’s a lot of ink and paper for a 95k word book. Fortunately, my office has a well-stocked stationery cupboard. I printed it off, put it inside a large brown envelope and placed it and my covering letter in a large grey indestructible plastic bag, along with a similar plastic bag stamped and addressed to me for return of the manuscript if, inconceivably, it was to be rejected. And rejected it duly was… more than three months later, with a pro forma rejection letter. This surprised me on two counts: firstly, I thought it was a good book (admittedly, I was biased) and, secondly, it was clear that the tamperproof seal on the brown envelope containing the manuscript had never been opened.
Around the same time I also sent the book to Edinburgh publishers, Black & White. That was in 2012. I’m sure I’ll get a reply any day now.
After that I acquired an agent, Broo Doherty, who I contacted having read an article about her online. She submitted Relatively Guilty to Harper Collins. They sent back a ‘rave rejection’ and in their detailed reply, said how much they loved the character of Robbie etc. but thought two of the storylines too unbelievable – that’s right, the ones based on actual cases. Ironically, they thought the entirely fictional storyline about the ex-IRA terrorist highly realistic! They were also concerned that I did not know there were 12 not 15 people on a jury. After all what did I, an experienced criminal lawyer who addressed juries on a regular basis know about such things? For those, like Harper Collins, who don’t know, Scottish juries are made up of fifteen people.
Waiting for publishers and agents to respond was infuriating. In my line of work clients expect immediate replies. A failure to respond to an inquiry, or a delay of several months, would end up in disciplinary action from the Law Society. With a law firm to run, a family to help raise and a football team to coach, I had little enough time to write, far less chase after publishers and agents, and so, on the advice of the author and writing guru Alan Guthrie, I decided to self-publish via Amazon Kindle
Only after sales for Relatively Guilty and book #2 ‘Duty Man’ took off did I try another publisher, this time Sandstone Press, who very politely told me they did not take on self-published books. That was the final straw. Over the next two years I wrote, another four books in the Best Defence Series: #3 ‘Sharp Practice’, #4 ‘Killer Contact’ #5 ‘Crime Fiction’ and #6 ‘Last Will.’
I liked the way Last Will ended and thought it a good place to stop. Then, when on holiday in the summer of 2015, I received an email from Sandstone Press, who had just been awarded the Saltire Society’s Publisher of the Year award, to say that they had come across my earlier email, read all my books, and were interested in publishing the next in the series - how was it coming along?
Obviously, having decided to finish the series at #6 there was no #7 in progress or even planned, what could I say, other than, “It’s coming along just fine!”
That was July. I told Sandstone I’d have the book finished by 1 st December. I sent them the manuscript on 29th November and I remember the commissioning editor Moira Forsyth saying, “What do you think you’re doing? Authors never stick to deadlines!” Which reminded me of Douglas Adams’ remark about deadlines, that he loved the whooshing sound they made as they passed by.
I’ve had a lot of help and support from my editor Moira Forsyth. Most of her advice relating to what I should take out of my books rather than what I should put in, for I have to admit being prone to the occasional rant about the deficiencies in the Scottish criminal justice system, to which Moira adds a note in the margin, ‘this is you talking, not Robbie!’
In all there are now ten books in the series, with the latest ‘Fixed Odds’ out in 4th July. For publishing purposes, the series has now been divided in two, with the first five (self-published books) retaining the Best Defence title, and the most recent five, published by Sandstone Press under the Robbie Munro Thrillers banner. Please note that although the books can be read in order, they are all standalone stories.
I hope you’ll think the books are worth a go. Try one of the most recent ones and, if you enjoy it, go back and read the rest.
All the best
19th May 2019