For the Defence
EVERY so often a book will rise up by the simple process of getting itself talked about. Word of mouth is the advertising which every publisher covets and only the public can supply. Whether lawyers or lovers of detective stories first started talking about For the Defence: The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall, does not matter. The book is now in full cry.
MARSHALL HALL was an English lawyer whose name, it is safe to assume, was not known in the United States to more than five hundred people prior to Mr. Marjoribanks’s Life, and only faintly known to all but a score. For he was not one of those British lawyers, like Harcourt, Asquith, Rufus Isaacs, John Simon, F. E. Smith, who leave durable impress upon the politics of their country, nor did he attain that other form of permanence which normally comes to great English lawyers — the Bench. Indeed, Marshall Hal! was not a lawyer at all, intellectually speaking. Fundamentally he was an ebullient personality and a great actor whose stage was the courtroom; in the United States he would be called a trial lawyer, He was above all a great criminal trial lawyer. The themes of life and death, love and frustration, were the stuff upon which his talents were exercised.
The popular response which Marshall Hall aroused in England his biographer, a brilliant young barrister and devoted friend, is now quickening among American readers with this chronicle of Hall’s forensic achievements. Mr. Marjoribanks’s skillful and vivid recital recreates for the American reader the contemporaneous excitement of the causes célèbres — the Crippen case, the Camden Town murder, the Marie Herman case, the Brides of the Bath case — in which, as leading actor, Marshall Hall for a generation furnished daily food to British newspaper readers.
Such a book readily tempts the mind to reflections on some of the fundamental issues of criminal justice. The career of Marshall Hall stirs questions of professional ethics in the defense of the guilty and of the law’s safeguards for the protection of the innocent. At every step if reminds us of the disparities between the abstractions of the law and the actualities of the courtroom. Mr. Marjoribauks’s account of Mr. Hall’s experiences (both of them, be it noted, Tory lawyers) bears grim testimony that the poor are handicapped by their poverty in securing justice. Again, there is perennial interest in comparing the dignity and dispatch of English trials with the indignity and dilatoriness which generally prevail with us. Americans will be startled to read that ‘the longest capital case in which Marshall was ever engaged,’ the Seddon case, ‘lasted for ten days’! But deeper than matters of dispatch or dilatoriness, of dignity and cheapness, are those ultimate problems of the efficacy of the criminal law about which we know as little as we did when, more than a generation ago, Mr. Justice Holmes asked: ‘What have we better than a blind guess to show that the criminal law in its present form does more good than harm?’
One would be false, however, to the histrionic significance of Marshall Hall’s career to use him as a text for criminological sermons. Mr. Marjoribanks presents to us the dramatic story of an advocate strong with the joy of battle, and as such it ought to be enjoyed. Here are exciting tales of crime and mystery together with considerable insight into the arts of a great jury lawyer. Hall was an unusual blend of pugnacity, courage, naïveté, devotion, tenderness. Nature also endowed him with a handsome presence and a beautiful voice. But analysis defies the infectious influence we call charm and personality. Marshall Hall, according to Mr. Marjoribanks, charged ‘with electricity nearly every case in which he appeared.’ Hall thus had the power to move men — the gift which makes the popular hero of the stage, at the bar. in politics. He had one other power, or perhaps another phase of the same power. ‘A great friend says of him that he was a man who was without settled convictions on any subject, but who might be convinced in all sincerity of anything in the world for the moment. This made his nature bad raw material for politics, but its very plasticity fitted him admirably for advocacy.’ Undoubtedly, an advocate who is capable of sinking his soul in a cause and identifying himself with it goes a long way toward sweeping a jury into the stream of his conviction. But such talent may also make for power in politics. Passionate though only contemporary sincerity is a great political gift. Roosevelt had it. and it explains much in Lloyd George. Ardor for fight, unquestioning devotion to his cause, great daring, freedom from skepticism, expansive feeling, naïve self-enjoyment, exuberance that invigorated his environment — these belonged both to Roosevelt and to Marshall Hall, and one may be sure they would have liked each other.