Sunday, 22 February 2015

Penguin no. 1083: Reputation for a Song
by Edward Grierson

'What was in his mind when he took the weapon in his hand need not concern us, for motive was never necessary to a prosecution of this kind, as His Lordship will direct. I know that this is not generally believed. But you, who are not concerned with fictions or illusions but with the law of England, will be proof against loose thinking and idle popular beliefs. Crimes are often motiveless - at least regarded from the standpoint of the normal man - and the law in its wisdom takes account of that. If the defence is able to explain how and why this youth could be justified in striking these terrible lethal blows, all well and good, but it is no part of my burden to investigate his mind, even if I could.'

We learn in the first few pages of Reputation for a Song that Robert Anderson, a country solicitor in the small fictional cathedral town of Turlminister, had been the subject of a violent attack one evening when he was working late, and that he had died of the injuries he sustained. We also learn that his youngest son Rupert, a slight and effeminate lad of just seventeen, has been charged with his murder. It takes him a few days, but Rupert eventually admits to administering the blows which killed his father. So this is a crime story in which the identity of the killer is never in doubt; the question of interest turns on whether the child is to be hanged for his actions.

The story goes on to relate the details of the family's life during the few weeks that precede Robert's death, and it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the mild-mannered and staid solicitor on account of the path he takes to his grave. He was a man living through a crisis not of his making, trying to act decently and with integrity and to uphold the values which had underpinned his life, while struggling to pass them onto his children. He comes across as a simple, quiet and decent man, but one who is being crushed by the circumstances which surround him.

Towards the end of his life Robert Anderson was continually being undermined by a far-savvier wife. Thwarting him seems to be the principal passion of her life: she undermines him when he tries to instil the values of industry and honesty in his children, and she defies him when he makes any attempt to discipline them. And it is never clear exactly why she works with such diligence to impede him - possibly it is to revenge herself for his not living up to her expectations in terms of prosperity and success, or to make allies of her children in this war she wages against him, or perhaps she just possesses a competitive nature. Her life seems to entirely comprise her love for two of her three children, and her hatred for her husband.

In contrast, Robert Anderson is inoffensive, seeking to harm no one. He is a man of firm traditional values and small pleasures, and he is dedicated, honest and hard-working. He takes pride in his work as a country solicitor and in the fact that he is continuing a family tradition, sitting in the same chair his father once occupied. And he loves the small old-fashioned town in which he has always lived, even though others consider it dull.  But he is also a man who has known no peace in his home for many years.

This is a story about the particular disadvantage faced by the decent. It is one of Robert's strengths, but also his greatest weakness, that he refuses to believe ill of others without overwhelming evidence, and this includes his wife; it means she can act against him almost with impunity. And while he tries to keep their discord quiet, she retails their disagreements to the world, filtering her accounts in order to win a public relations war her husband has no idea they are fighting. And so when Robert Anderson is killed, much of the undermining of his reputation has already occurred. Public opinion has been primed, and it is a very small step to destroy his reputation completely.

And this is also a story about the disadvantage faced by the dead, because they cannot speak in their own defence nor put counterarguments to claims made against them by those still living.

Edward Grierson worked as a barrister, and he tells here a story about the imperfectness and complexity of the justice system. Armed with knowledge of the full story, the reader is given an opportunity to watch how things can go awry: how information can be selectively presented, how witnesses can be manipulated, how a decent man can be vilified, and how the person who is truly guilty may never even be called upon to answer for their actions.

First published 1952. Published in Penguin Books 1955.


  1. Sounds fascinating -- thanks!

  2. A superb story, this one. I like Grierson's other books, but he never surpassed this.

  3. I don't think I've ever come across Grierson before, but this does sound interesting.

  4. This one really appeals to me. I've looked on my shelves and I don't have it. I must try to get hold of a copy.



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