I liked You Don’t Know Me a lot more than I’d expected to – I don’t usually pick up courtroom style thrillers. Then I spoke to Charlotte, who told me that there was a book written entirely as a closing speech and I practically tripped over myself in my haste to get to the library.
Plot summary: An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech.
He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out. Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth.
There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions… but at the end of the speeches, only one matters: Did he do it?
Rating: * * * *
So. The narrator has gone through his whole criminal trial – witnesses, documentary evidence, submissions, etc. But, right before it’s time for closing speeches, he sacks his barrister and decides to sum up the matter himself for the jury. He was going to lose anyway, might as well tell the truth, right? Because as far as he can tell us, he didn’t do it, although it’s hardly that straightforward…
I love the style of this. The entire novel is the narrator’s closing speech, all 400 pages of it. I was worried this would get annoying after a while, but it actually strikes the perfect balance of an interesting format that doesn’t get too gimmicky. For the most part, it reads as a chatty, informal novel that it occasionally interspersed with asides about the Judge rolling his eyes or backtracking because he can see that the Jury don’t understand a piece of slang he just used. It’s a really clever way of writing a novel that doesn’t impede the storytelling in the slightest.
There is A Point to You Don’t Know Me, but it’s a valid one and it isn’t written with a sledgehammer. I don’t think the exact gender, ethnicity and class ratios of the Jury are completely revealed, but it’s clear that the Defendant does not believe that he is indeed being tried by his peers. One of the pieces of the Prosecution’s evidence is that he was overheard muttering a supposedly incriminating phrase… or so it would seem to those of us who didn’t grow-up in urban London. He’s able to explain what those words mean to him and his actual peers, drawing the whole concept of the Jury system into question.
My only complaint about this book would be that certain aspects of the ‘true’ version of events seem somewhat fanciful. If I were a Juror listening to this explanation, I can’t help but think I’d be raising an eyebrow once or twice. Maybe that’s the point though – it wouldn’t be such a thought-provoking book if the Jury’s eventual verdict was obvious. Perhaps it’s meant to be teetering on the fence of aquittal.
The novel ends immediately after the end of the speeches. We don’t return to hear the Jury’s final verdict, so we’ll never know if he was sent down or not. I debated whether this was a spoiler or not and, whilst it probably is, it would have hugely irriated me had I not known that going it, to the extent where it actually would probably have ruined the book. This way, I got to enjoy the journey and not suffer a huge let-down at the end. I do think Mr Mahmood made the right decision there though – the unknowing only adds to this books’ genius.
Whilst You Don’t Know Me is written by a criminal defence barrister (although he writes so well that he clearly missed his calling as an author), it never gets bogged down in legal terminology or archaic case law. The narrator has no knowledge of the law or the Courts either – only what his barrister managed to impart before flouncing out the door (trust me, barristers flounce). It’s an ingenious way of constructing a story, actually – a legal drama that requires absolutely zero knowledge of the law.
I’ll definitely be buying anything else that Mr Mahmood writes. He probably won’t use the same format again, but I’d be ecstatic if he did as it just works so well. I’d really recommend this book to everybody, regardless of your interest in law or crime. It’s very human – revealing our inherent prejudices and questioning whether we are ever really tried by our ‘peers.’
Imran Mahmood spoke with The Guardian about this book, and whether the moral question can overwhelm legal guilt. Read that fascinating article here.
Alternatively, read Charlotte’s review of You Don’t Know Me at Lit Addicted Brit.