Written by TJ Cooke — November may be over, but new talent still appears regularly on our radar screens. Admittedly, Tim Cooke is not exactly an inexperienced writer. He has written many hours of TV and radio drama, including contributions to such popular British shows as The Bill, London’s Burning and Bad Girls. All this wealth of experience stands him in good stead for his second novel, Defending Elton, a self-published book which deserves a wider audience.
Jim Harwood is a solicitor, who won’t let either overly rigid scruples or traumatic childhood memories get in the way of his promising career. Some gambling problems have made him the slightly uneasy ally of a criminal ringleader, but he also defends the helpless, such as Elton Spears – a giant with the mind of a child, and an endless appetite for Scooby Doo and chocolate. When Jim meets mysterious Sri Lankan beauty Sarena, however, his life is turned upside down. Her lavish lifestyle seems at odds with her student status, and Jim soon catches her out in a tangle of lies. Yet despite his suspicions, he becomes obsessed with her.
Obsession and jealousy soon lead to terrible tragedy, and Jim fears he may be accused of murder. In an effort to cover up what’s happened, he drops Sarena’s body off Beachy Head – a cliff in Sussex. Then he plants some evidence, turning unwitting Elton into the perfect patsy. Of course, he will be the solicitor representing Elton, which gives him access to all of the police materials and allows him to ‘edit’ what the defence barrister gets to see.
The plot is completely original. Although we know who did it from the start, the suspense lies in ‘how can he possibly get away with it?’ There are numerous heart-stopping moments when Jim gets tangled up in his own web of deceit. Then he gets a message from a dead person and everything starts to unravel…
Very cleverly constructed, with deftly-handled flashbacks to different points in time, the books offers us not just one but three puzzles. What actually happened the night Sarena died? Just who was she, anyway? And will Jim be able to manipulate the justice system to his advantage? Part courtroom drama and part psychological thriller, this book defies crime fiction conventions and expectations.
Although Sarena herself feels a little flat – perhaps because we see her through Jim’s idealising eyes – the rest of the characters are brilliantly realised. You cannot help but feel for hapless Elton. The interviews with him are a joy to read. Elton’s QC Harry Douglas – who proves a bit too sharp for Jim’s liking – may be a secondary figure, but he is well rounded nevertheless, as is ambitious go-getter Loren, who has her eye on Jim. Then we have Jim himself: a character hard to pin down. Despite his obvious wrongdoings, he seems to be acting more out of weakness and fear rather than deliberate cruelty. And he is refreshingly honest with the reader, no matter how much he may lie to other people. He often seems like a Hugh Grant type bumbling Englishman caught in something too big for him to handle, which makes you root for him all the more, despite yourself.
Defending Elton is not only an exciting read, but also a hard-hitting social commentary about the English justice system and the care of those with mental health issues. Jim defends his actions by saying that a manslaughter charge is the only way that Elton is going to get the care he needs for his condition, since care in the community is clearly failing him. Although it could have benefited from a little editing, this is a very accomplished and tightly plotted book with an unexpected ending. It might remind you a bit of Patricia Highsmith.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars