Book review: The Trials of Lila Dalton
This high octane thriller from Cardiff-based barrister L. J. Shepherd comes with extra octane.
It’s the tale of a barrister, the eponymous Lila Dalton who has to defend a bomber accused of mass murder, where the evidence seems to be solidly stacked up against him.
There are witnesses and CCTV footage not to mention the fact he worked for a south Wales demolition firm and would have therefore been able to easily source the necessary plosive materials.
Just to make things worse Dalton is subject to complete lapses of memory to the extend that she starts the trial not being able to remember who she is.
And soon she is even more confused as she finds out the courtroom is on Assumption Island, way out in the Atlantic, where there’s an escaped prisoner on the loose.
News junkies will recall that not that long ago the UK Government was mooting the similarly named Ascension Island, 4000 miles away, as a place to deport people arriving across the English Channel in small boats, that is should the contentious Rwanda scheme prove impossible.
The name Assumption Island thus has contemporary resonance as indeed do many of the dark skullduggeries being enacted on this far flung rock where foreign nationals and domestic terrorists are put on trial and incarcerated.
The logic of it is challenging, even to a sharp-tack barrister such as Dalton:
‘The UK has an island dedicated to imprisoning foreign nationals. Something about this strikes me as odd. My experience of the world is of an unsympathetic place where differences are rooted out and punished, but for the UK to treat foreign criminals as terrorists seems particularly warped.’
Stranded on an island where pretty much everything is not what it appears to be, the redoubtable Lila Dalton tries to navigate her way through the trials of the courtroom – where she has flashbacks of being assaulted by a predatory judge – staying in the Kafkaesque madhouse of an hotel, drinking in oddball local bars and being hounded by members of Special Branch who like to play hardball.
To add to her dilemmas she also comes to believe that the fate of her own kidnapped daughter depends on her managing to get her client acquitted.
Someone seems to be tapping her phone and strange messages appear, leading her into a mysterious world of white supremacists, ancient runes and torch-lit rituals.
Without wishing to give too much away we are soon in the world of psy-ops, a shady, unsettling place where the state tries to unsettle the minds of selected citizens.
In this The Trials of Lily Dalton reminds one of the American novelist Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which similarly tries to make sense of mind games, in this example those employed by the CIA in Vietnam.
In Lila’s case she is helped in her increasingly frustrated and frustrating enquiries by an old-school journalist called Dev, for an anti-fascist magazine called the Beacon.
But in keeping with the multiplying uncertainties of life on the island even he is not quite what he purports to be. Meanwhile Lila faces a lot of trials.
She is rendered unconscious and while she’s KO’d someone tattoos a set of numbers on her arm. She finds not one but two dead bodies and is suspected of murdering both.
And to top it all there is the series of hallucinations, or what might be hallucinations as she is haunted by a woman in purple or threatened by members of a shadowy vaguely Masonic organisation called the Order of Eights and Sevens.
There’s also a dark and murderous sub plot about a pair of survivalists camping in Bannau Brycheiniog along with reconstructions of the day when the bomb went off in Birmingham, piecing together the lives of the victims and paramedics who were caught up in an explosion that smithereened their lives.
It’s a bit like that line in the poem ”Snow’ by Louis MacNeice which suggests that the ‘World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural.’
It’s all enough to make your head spin but L.J.Shepherd holds it all together with great skill, anchoring all the breathless action to the more controlled environment and enforced silences of the court-room.
Here Dalton consistently shows her mettle as a forensically questioning brief, picking holes in the evidence and casting doubt on the prosecution’s solid cast of eye-witnesses and experts.
In conclusion, as they say, The Trials of Lila Dalton is a remarkable debut, a ‘high concept thriller’ which is also the sort of hyperoxygenating page-turner that makes you wish you had one of those rubber thimbles that bank-tellers’ wear so that you can turn those pages even quicker.
It’s a book to fair leave you breathless.
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