“It was the strangest murder trial I ever attended. They named it the ‘Peckham Murder’ in the headlines, though Northwood Street, where the old woman was found battered to death, was not strictly speaking in Peckham.”
From ‘The Case for the Defence’ by Graham Green.
Graham Greene was an English novelist, short-story writer, playwright and journalist, who was a fantastic storyteller but also liked to deal with moral issues in his works, many of which often had political settings. Greene was a devout Roman Catholic and a member of the Communist party and Independent Labour Party. His short story, ‘The Case for the Defence‘, is a thriller written in 1939 when, at that time in Britain, a conviction for murder carried with it the death penalty. Greene uses this book to throw doubts over this punishment and to echo his beliefs that capital punishment should be abolished.
The story begins in the Central Criminal Court in London at the trial of Mr Adams, who is accused with what was dubbed the “Peckham Murder”; the murder of a Mrs. Parkers who was battered to death in Northwood Street. Adams was accused of the murder when four witnesses saw him or someone with his appearance coming out of Mrs. Parker’s house holding a hammer on the day that she was murdered. The case is muddied by the fact that while Adams is standing in the dock there is another Adams, his identical twin sitting at the back of the court with his wife. The witnesses are all called to give their testimony and the final witness, Mrs. Salmon, who is also the prime character in the story identifies the man in the dock as the murderer.
However when Mrs. Salmon has the identical twin pointed out to her she becomes very confused. This confusion means that it is impossible to say which of the twins was the murderer and the accused Adams is acquitted because of lack of evidence. However, divine intervention takes over the rule of Justice when on leaving the court, one of the Adams brothers is hit by a speeding bus, and killed, his skull being hammered in the precise way that Mrs. Parker's had been. The story finishes with the reader not knowing who the murderer was – was it the man lying dead on the road or was it the brother who is knelt crying over his twin’s body?
The story is told through a narrator (probably the prosecutor in court) who does not participate in the plot but refers to the events of the story in the third person. This means that the reader is left to read between the lines of what the narrator is saying to work out what really happened and also gives a good description of the characters, like Mrs. Salmon who is described as “the ideal witness, with her slight Scotch accent and her expression of honesty, care and kindness” showing the reader that her witness was reliable especially as the accused is described as “a heavy stout man with bulging bloodshot eyes”, not a character she was likely to have mistaken as someone else.
This short story is a good tense read and Graham Greene keeps the tension going right up to the end of the book as he finishes it with the words ”But if you were Mrs. Salmon, could you sleep at night?” By writing this the author is showing the reader that there is probably still a murderer on the loose and that Mrs. Salmon may be in some danger. This is a quick and easy short story to read and one that makes an ideal introduction to anyone who had not experienced the works of Graham Greene.