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House of Correction


House of Correction

The oft-quoted aphorism “A person who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client” immediately comes to mind in the opening pages of HOUSE OF CORRECTION, written by the husband-and-wife team of Sean French and Nicci Gerrard, collectively known as Nicci French. Despite featuring a traditional murder mystery plot, there is one unique twist to the proceedings: the accused is acting as her own attorney. The novel works quite well, with superbly written courtroom scenes that not only advance the story but also accurately point out the reason why self-representation is a dangerous and difficult undertaking.

Tabitha Hardy wakes up in her prison cell, recalling the details that have led to her incarceration on a murder charge. Piece by piece, the parts of the puzzle that ultimately will lead to her trial for the death of Stuart Rees are provided to the reader simultaneously with her recollection of the events in Okeham, where she was born and raised. She eventually left this small village but returned following the death of her parents. Why she came back, along with her interaction with members of the community, is part of the mystery surrounding Stuart’s murder. Tabitha correctly understands that if she did not kill him, then someone else in Okeham did.

"HOUSE OF CORRECTION is an enjoyable mystery that offers unique views of the legal system and is a refreshing change of pace for readers of this genre."

One of the book’s striking elements is French’s portrayal of the prison environment where Tabitha spends most of her time. It is a regimented and structured life run by unsympathetic prison guards and wardens. There are also a number of inmates who have their own set of rules. It is interesting to see Tabitha manipulate the system through her own representation, acquiring the tools necessary to prepare for court. She does manage to gain some allies in her legal battle, including her first cellmate Michaela, who will end up assisting her in the trial.

American readers will pay careful attention to the differences between the US and British legal systems. In the latter, two different lawyers work on cases, solicitors prepare the cases and barristers act in the courtroom. Tabitha decides to represent herself in court after her solicitor unsuccessfully tries to convince her to plead guilty. She must do battle against two barristers as well as a judge, none of whom are happy with the circumstances in which they find themselves. The book also effectively demonstrates how the legal system must still provide justice when the defendant, through her own stubbornness, is impeding the process.

Finally, there is Tabitha herself. For most of the novel we see her in prison, awaiting trial (or, as the British say, on remand). A 30-year-old who seems naïve about the ways and workings of the world, she believes desperately that somehow there is a magic word that will end her ordeal. Yet, when she is presented with every opportunity to help herself, she chooses a path of difficulty. She is a tormented figure who must rely on assistance from some unlikely sources to gain her freedom.

HOUSE OF CORRECTION is an enjoyable mystery that offers unique views of the legal system and is a refreshing change of pace for readers of this genre.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on October 30, 2020

House of Correction
by Nicci French