An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the Closing Speeches, the young man sacks his lawyer, and decides to give his own defence speech.
He tells us that his barrister told him to leave some things out. Sometimes, the truth can be too difficult to explain, or believe. But he thinks that if he’s going to go down for life, he might as well go down telling the truth.
There are eight pieces of evidence against him. As he talks us through them one by one, his life is in our hands. We, the reader – member of the jury – must keep an open mind till we hear the end of his story. His defence raises many questions… but at the end of the speeches, only one matters:
Did he do it?
From the outset this book had me firmly in the palm of its hand. A very different premise to the usual crime book, this book is a monologue. It takes the form of a young man who, having sacked his Q.C. towards the end of his trial, is making his closing summation.
This is a very powerful and compelling story told in the words of a young man whose whole life has been spent amidst the gangland culture of London housing estates.
We never know his name, but as he speaks – and this is a closing speech that continues for several days – we learn a lot about his family, his friends, and the characters who populate the different gangs. We learn something of the culture that uses young children; where being a gang member is not a choice but a survival tactic.
It ought to be a dark and depressing tale – and in many ways it is a terrible story to hear – but this is a young man who has a powerful sense of self. He is not an academic lad, but he has compassion, the capacity to love and a powerful protective instinct.
In deciding to tell us his ‘truth’; his version of what really happened, he will deal not only with all the evidence that the prosecution has presented, but will also confront us with the truth of the kind of lives that he and his neighbours have to lead.
In the nature versus nurture argument, this is the potential of nurture, the redemptive possibility.
The reader is part of the jury. As the narrative continues, we come to question quite a lot about how the justice system works; whether juries really have the facts at hand when reaching their decisions. It’s a complex book which raises a lot of questions and is deeply thought-provoking.
It is for us to decide whether this young man has a future and that’s partly what makes it a forceful and compelling novel. The writing is strong and I think Mahmood has done a stunning job of articulating this young man’s life.
I do have a hesitation about the conclusion – it feels too much of a cop out and not as believable as all of the rest of the book.
Nevertheless, this does not diminish the strength and depth of this debut novel. I’d urge everyone to read it.
Imran Mahmood is a barrister based in London who specialises in Civil & Criminal Law. He clearly knows whereof he speaks and that pays off in spades.
You Don’t Know Me is a brilliant debut from an author who will undoubtedly garner praise.
You Don’t Know Me was published by Penguin UK – Michael Joseph on May 4th 2017