And Is There Still Honey For Tea?
PublisherNo Exit Press
Date Published23 April 2015
Price£ 8.99

And Is There Honey Still For Tea?

by Peter Murphy

A libel suit between an American university professor and an Englishman accused of being a spy instigates a dangerous series of events for barrister Ben Schroeder.


An American university professor, Francis Hollander, writes an article publicly accusing an Englishman, Sir James Digby, of being a spy for the Soviet Union. In order to clear his name Digby decides to sue Hollander for libel, thereby instigating a series of events which prove dangerous for barrister Ben Schroeder

It is eminently clear that Peter Murphy has a considerable knowledge of the workings of the law, specifically the relationship between barristers and those who have traditionally been regarded as their poor cousins, the solicitors. Of course, courtroom scenes are routine in crime fiction - if this book can be classed as crime fiction - but rarely can the relationship between the two adversarial sides and the judge have been so well presented.

The issues involved are complex and the language in which they are presented correspondingly so, but it is well worth taking a little more time in order to follow the arguments. There is a subtlety about the writing as a whole but particularly in the courtroom scenes. Most people will not be familiar with the world of solicitors and even less so with that of barristers, but it is easy to believe that this is how they think and speak. The book leaves the definite impression that this realism comes from an innate knowledge of the two professions and not, as all too frequently, from internet-based research.

The other expertise Murphy obviously possesses is in the game of chess but, whilst admitting that it forms a crucial part of the plot, it has to be said that there is rather too much of it. Chess is one of those games that can easily become an obsession - something it clearly is with the author - but for others it can be a bore. For those readers who know little more than the way in which the pieces move, and those who fall into neither category, there is far too much discussion of its beauty and its complexity.

The suggestion, made more than once, that chess could be a tool to create a better and more equal society lends a touch of the absurd. Of course, we must not assume that the author necessarily believes what an untrustworthy character in his story believes, but he clearly exaggerates the importance of what is in the end simply a game. Chess is an activity on which to hang the plot but even if that requires some mention of the travelling involved in attending congresses and the dates when they occurred, it isn't really necessary to go into details of who won, the relative merits of the competitors and - most unnecessary of all - the moves they make.

The way in which Murphy tells his story is clever. He has the normal narrative of events that occur on both sides during the preparation of the case, but this is accompanied by a lengthy but always interesting first person account by Digby of his very privileged childhood, his school and university days and the events in his career which led to his present predicament. The picture presented of a wealthy family between the wars is a very convincing and - it has to be admitted - a very attractive one. It becomes obvious that the reader is to learn, via this technique, whether the accusation against him is true before the legal wrangling comes to an end.

It can't be said that we learn anything particularly new about the motives of spies like Burgess, McLean and Philby, though it is doubtful that they shared the idealism we find here. McLean and Philby don't have much of a part in the novel and while there is little admirable about Burgess, Blunt appears quite close to Digby in his motives. Whether this concern on the part of the well-heeled Englishman for the less fortunate members of society was particularly widespread is doubtful, but we have no trouble in believing that Digby shared it.

The lines: “Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?” may have been written to reflect the feelings of middle class Englishmen abroad but in wholly different circumstances from those in which Digby finds himself. They have, however, the same appeal and the same sense of a vanished way of life that was beautiful even, perhaps, to those not fortunate enough to share it.

Digby is a character in whom we can believe but he is not alone in coming across as very convincing. The ability of an author to create living characters is always dependent on his knowledge of what they would do and say in any given circumstances - a talent that Peter Murphy possesses in abundance.

Reviewed 12 September 2015 by Arnold Taylor