Book review: The Defence

In the real world Steve Cavanagh is a Belfast lawyer who explained to Declan Burke how an exceptional advocate can convince a jury black is actually white.

Steve Cavanagh

Orion, €16.99; ebook €9.49.

ON THE face of it, Steve Cavanagh’s debut novel, The Defence, is a fairly straightforward legal thriller. New York lawyer Eddie Flynn is commissioned to represent Russian mobster Olek Volchek in court, with the threat of a very short-lived post-case career hanging over him if he doesn’t get Olek acquitted.

So far, so conventional. Unusually, however, Eddie Flynn is both a former lawyer and ex-con artist, who believes that the two careers essentially employ the same skills.

“We have an adversarial system of justice,” explains Steve. “The prosecution tell their story through their witnesses, and the defence get the chance to pick holes in that story so that a jury can assess if the witness is credible or if their story simply falls apart when it is tested. So lawyers, like con artists, have to be able to think on their feet.

"They have to be persuasive, students of human behaviour able to spot a lie a mile off.” He grins.

“I love that quote from Robert Frost: ‘A jury consists of 12 persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.’”

The ability to bring the same skills to parallel careers also applies to Steve, a Belfast-based solicitor who specialises in discrimination and employment law under his real name, Stephen Mearns.

“I wanted a slight separation from my professional life as lawyer,” he says of the pseudonym. “I started writing the book after my Mum passed away, and in many ways my pen name is a tribute to her, as Cavanagh was her maiden name. It’s also handy to have a name that appears fairly early in the alphabet – it helps with book browsing.”

The irreverence that Steve Cavanagh brings to his fictional portrayal of the legal profession is most notable in The Defence’s audacious opening.

“I wanted to give the legal thriller a shot of adrenaline,” Steve says, “so the opening had to have a real kick to it. I thought about the worst thing that could happen to a lawyer, and standing up in court with a bomb strapped to your back with your client holding the detonator would be pretty much as bad as it gets.

"Some writers are focussed on gritty realism, and I enjoy those kind of books as a reader, but personally, I’ve always been more interested in the spectacular because that’s entertaining and that’s what gets the reader’s blood pumping.”

Assuming he’s not autobiographical, is Eddie Flynn modelled on any real-life lawyers?

“The only real person who was of any influence for Eddie was Clarence Darrow,” says Steve. “Darrow was one of the finest advocates of the last 100 years.

"He was a man who could turn and win any case. Any case. He was that good. He also swung close to crossing the line into the criminal side of things from time to time, or so legend would have it.”

As for literary influences, Steve cites a rattlebag of names and styles that includes Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Mortimer and John Grisham, as you might expect, but also Brendan Behan, Thomas Harris and Spike Milligan.

"It was Irish author John Connolly, however, who finally got Steve writing his novel.

“The Charlie Parker series is probably my favourite crime series and the fact that a fellow Irishman could write great American crime thrillers was a big influence. I thought that if John Connolly could do it, I might be able to do it. When I started writing I quickly realised that Connolly is a genius, and I am not – so I had to really work at it.”

As with Connolly’s Charlie Parker novels, The Defence is set in the United States. Why so?

“I wanted to write a legal thriller and I had the idea for the character of Eddie Flynn, a former con artist who became a lawyer, and I wanted part of the book to explore similarities between the two professions.

"If I had set the book in the UK or Ireland I would have had an immediate problem because we have a dual system of representation – barristers and solicitors.

"At that time I didn’t believe I had the skill as a writer to create two compelling lead characters, and that splitting the action between the two of them would unbalance the book.

“In addition, the British and Irish legal system is still quite pompous and stuffy, or at least that can be people’s impression. It just didn’t fit with the kind of story I wanted to tell.

"Moving the action to the US solved those problems, as attorneys perform the role of the lawyer and advocate. Setting it in New York fitted with the pace of the story and the character.”

There’s a theory that claims Northern Ireland crime writers are engaged in a kind of cathartic exploration of the Troubles. Despite the New York setting, can we read The Defence along those lines?

“I suppose my upbringing did inform the book in some ways,” Steve concedes. “Eddie Flynn is a lawyer, and I’m a lawyer. Eddie spends most of his time in this book with a bomb strapped to his back, I grew up in Belfast.” He laughs.

“I’m kidding, of course. But when you’ve grown up in the Troubles then that’s all you know. You don’t have another frame of reference to tell you – hang on, this isn’t right. It’s only when I grew older, say around 15 years of age, that I started to notice that things didn’t have to be like this and I wanted to get out of Belfast and get away.

"Kids I knew and went to school with were affected by it – some were murdered – some went on to join the paramilitaries.

“These days, as I’m still a lawyer, some aspects of my work are bound up in the Troubles and the problems that we continue to have in Northern Ireland. Writing is an escape for me. I didn’t want to spend my day dealing with all the crime and social problems that Northern Ireland has and then come home and write about it.”

Given that The Defence is a legal thriller with the emphasis on thrills and spills, it’s something of a surprise to hear that it’s the courtroom scenes that give Steve the most satisfaction as a writer.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “there are a number of writers working today that nail courtroom scenes and how the art of advocacy really works.

"Michael Connelly springs to mind. But I felt I could add my own influence to that. Eddie takes the reader by the hand and shows them what’s really going on when a cross-examination is taking place. Eddie explains the verbal warfare and I love that.

“An effective cross-examination is like a magic trick. In a good cross-examination the lawyer will have the witness swear blind that they don’t have any money on their person at all, not a single penny.

"Then the lawyer will reach behind the ear of the witness and produce a pound coin. That’s a good cross-examination. A great cross-examiner will make the witness reach behind their own ear and produce a pound coin.”

Finally, if Stephen Mearns / Steve Cavanagh ever has to fall back on his skills as a con artist to earn a crust, what will his speciality be? “That’s easy. The fraudulent obtainment of Viscount biscuits.”


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