It seemed like a good idea at the time. Turning a detective novel on its head by having a solicitor as the victim. Yes, it did seem like a good idea.
Then I started to think about the likely evidence – statements from family members, from staff and colleagues, legal associates and of course the clients. And that’s when the good idea suddenly became a bit more complicated.
I mistakenly thought that in the case of a solicitor’s murder, the police would have immediate and unrestricted access to his client files. But, being cautious in nature, I decided to check and thank goodness I did. I could not have been more wrong.
I had reckoned without what is known as client privilege and The Law Society of Scotland is quite clear on the point. A solicitor has a duty to maintain client confidentiality and that duty does not wane over time; nor, I was dismayed to learn, does it expire if the solicitor dies, even if his death is thought to be suspicious.
I took some time to reflect on how this would affect the plot of my book. Normally I put myself in the detective’s shoes and consider how she would proceed. If the victim had been, say, a recruitment consultant or a marketing specialist my detective would likely have been granted a warrant to search their home and business premises, seizing any documents which could be relevant. But for a solicitor’s murder, a rethink was required.
My initial thought was to have another solicitor working alongside my murder victim – a business partner, perhaps. He or she would be able to judge what information could be given to the police without prejudicing clients’ interests. And then I thought maybe not…
There is a quotation attributed to St Augustine which goes something like, ‘Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.’ It comes into my mind every time I plot a crime novel. I want my detective to solve the mystery, but ‘not yet’. Keeping readers turning pages to find out the truth is, after all, the job of the crime novelist. And thus I realised I had stumbled upon a useful plot device.
I made my solicitor a sole practitioner with the only staff a receptionist, a paralegal and a trainee who had recently left the firm. Then I introduced a complication in the life of the paralegal and made the trainee temporarily inaccessible (she was off grid, climbing cliffs in the north of Scotland with no mobile reception). Thus, I had created a few more obstacles, delaying the uncovering of evidence.
Then I stepped back and considered what might happen next. How would the police proceed with such a tricky investigation?
I returned to the Law Society website and learned they would appoint another solicitor to manage the clients’ interests. It seemed reasonable for this to take a few days which would further frustrate my detective.
But, once that solicitor had been appointed, what then? What information would the police be given, and would a warrant be required? It was time for some legal advice.
A fellow author put me in touch with two solicitor friends, Euan and Katie, who kindly agreed to help. Over an exchange of emails they confirmed a warrant would be needed to access any information held about clients. But, they cautioned, if the scope of the warrant was too broad, any evidence found during a search might be challenged by the defence in court and declared inadmissible.
I was briefly tempted to have my detective pursue this course of action, snatching evidence away at the eleventh hour. But it seemed unlikely the police would draw up such a warrant in the circumstances and I do try to be as realistic as possible. So I weighed up how little information they might need. Euan and Katie suggested restricting the terms of the warrant to client contact details only. Keep it specific and narrow, they said, and it’s more likely to be granted.
And so I built my specific and narrow warrant into the plot. I took the paralegal and former trainee out of the picture for a few days, and I put my unfortunate solicitor to death. The book which resulted, A Blind Eye, was a challenge to write but it also gave me great heart, knowing the legal profession protects the interests of its clients with such vigour and integrity. I certainly won’t be murdering another solicitor any time soon!
A Blind Eye by Marion Todd (Published by Canelo) Out Now
Can DI Clare Mackay unravel a dead man's secrets? Harry Richards, a local solicitor, is found in his car, throat slit. DI Clare Mackay is on the case. She soon learns that Harry was not the upstanding man he seemed to be. Finding the killer should be easy. Then the wife of one of Harry's colleagues is discovered dead in her car, and Clare realises there is something more sinister at play... Can she find out who's behind the murders before they turn their attention to her?