The Trials of Lila Dalton by L.J. Shepherd

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Review by Gill Davies

This is a first novel by a practising barrister and is billed as “a legal thriller with a psychological twist”. It comes with plaudits from – among others – Sophie Hannah, Chris Whitaker and Sabine Durrant. And they should recognise an award-winner and best-seller when they see one. But it is a weird one, and I am still working out what I think about it. It has a legal dimension but it isn’t Scott Turow. A courtroom drama frames the action and is certainly intriguing but it becomes apparent that the mystery won’t be solved on this particular stage. Similarly, I didn’t find much “psychological” depth or focus, though the plot does come to depend on how the central character deals with the frightening situation she finds herself in. So – what exactly is going on here?

The novel opens in a courtroom with the narrator blankly gazing at twelve strangers who stare back at her. Gradually she realises they are jurors and the court is waiting for her, the defendant’s barrister, to get on with her job. Here’s the twist: she doesn’t know who she is or why she is there. Judge and prosecuting counsel urge her to move on. And, in one of the clever strategies the author uses, it’s the routines of the legal system that slowly reveal her situation to her. Worryingly, although only a junior on the legal team, she is there to defend a terrorist / mass-murderer who has bombed a Home Office building. Other people – who know her better than she does – recognise her, advise her, fill in some gaps for her but she remains mystified and, of course, threatened by the whole situation. As she realises that she does have knowledge of the legal system, she starts to apply this to the case but also to her baffling situation. But just as she seems to be getting a grasp on things, other odd events occur. It becomes clear that something isn’t right, not only with the case she is trying but outside the court too. There are gaps and confusions and mysterious events, which only increase as she struggles to unravel the mystery. Then we learn that the trial is taking place on an island thousands of miles from the UK in a secret special court set up to try the most serious crimes. And to top it all, she is threatened with deadly consequences if her client is found guilty. Phew!

As she tries to make sense of her situation she gets flashbacks and brief, disturbing memories that hint at the reasons for her involvement. At first it seems as though her loss of memory is her main problem, but gradually it emerges that there are other things going on that she couldn’t be expected to understand or remember. She’s threatened, followed, accused, and unable to escape from this increasingly crazy situation. She is now in a paranoid thriller. And it is certainly an exciting read.

Along with the fast-moving plot, the novel has a witty, knowing narrative voice and Lila is an engaging central character who is very far from being a female victim. She is feisty, honest and very likeable, keeping the novel moving with a humour and directness that sustain interest and plausibility. This is important in what can be a disconcerting generic mixture of courtroom drama, political thriller, and conspiracy mystery, with a bit of the supernatural mixed in. The author knowingly references Kafka and Lewis Carroll, The Prisoner, The Wicker Man and (possibly) Don’t Look Now. Running through the novel is an Alice in Wonderland mood that perplexes the reader. It feels real and simultaneously unreal. Even the familiar procedures of the legal system seem disconnected and strange. Figures appear and disappear; there are bizarre events; Lila is accused of murder; there is a strange cult on the island; dark plots and deeds proliferate. There is so much mystery and misdirection that the reader is consistently baffled. As in every good thriller, there is resolution – and here it comes through a series of revelations, bizarre explanations and a final twist.

I confess that the final twist didn’t really work for me though I expect that other readers will accept it. Despite the novel’s playfulness and absurdity, I wondered if in the end Shepherd wanted it to be taken more seriously than had seemed to be the case while the extraordinary plot unfolded. I have to avoid spoilers but I found the topical commentary in the resolution rather daft. The final sections propose a commentary on the contemporary world where political horrors come to the foreground, surveillance, mind control, media manipulation, secret service malfeasance, the undermining of democracy, and the spread of lies. I am very happy with engaged political writing but this hit a false note for me and this is where my final unsureness about the novel lies. Perhaps I am just old-fashioned. Still, if you like this kind of thing, you’ll really like this.

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L.J. Shepherd, The Trials of Lila Dalton (Pushkin Vertigo, 2024). 978-1782279853, 351 pp., hardback.

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