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Pan, London, 1970
(originally published by Hamish Hamilton in 1968 as The Burden of Proof)
price: 30p; 256 pages

dedication: To the policemen of England, who are still the salt of the earth

The blurb on the back:

‘A wild and dizzy tale of crime and vice’ - New Yorker
‘Violent and highly sensational’ -
‘One of the best crime stories I have ever read’ -
Sunday Telegraph

opening lines:
‘A nice cup of teas,’ said Vic Dakin tenderly. ‘How are you feeling this morning.’

I know that Richard Burton appeared in some complete stinkers, but Villain wasn’t one of them. In fact it’s one of his very best, a wonderfully gritty bit of Brit noir that ranks alongside Get Carter as the classic depiction of the British underworld. He plays Vic Dakin, a gay psychopath running a variety of protection rackets and blags in a way that could possibly be reminiscent of a certain Kray of whom you may or may not have heard. He loves his mother, natch.

Before that, however, before Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote one of their best early screenplays, Villain was a novel known as The Burdern of Proof. And a damn fine one it was too. The main difference is indicated by the change in title. Because, while the film concentrated on the anti-hero and the London underground, the main thrust of the original novel is the failure of the entire judicial system. This is a fallen world where a bent lawyer can call a blackmailed MP to commit perjury and ensure that a violent thug gets off any charge brought against him. And over it presides an elderly and blinkered judge, who smugly believes ‘that England was unique because her Government and Law were not corrupt. But neither was true any more.’ (p.192)

Beyond the abuse of that hallowed principle ‘the burden of proof’, there lies a picture of a country in chronic, perhaps terminal, disintegration:

England was impotent now, but talkative, petulant, critical and, in decline, intellectually arrogant. She was too articulate in relation to her negligible power to support her arguments. Nobody could do anything now without being accountable to the scorn of the liberal intellectuals in print or on television. England was too articulate at the top. Nobody, even in a Socialist liberal permissive society, had the slightest notion of the wishes of the people, out there beyond the great conversational shop of London. (p.54)

And who is left holding back the forces of anarchy, ensuring that the tattered remnants of civilized society can stumble onwards for another day? Well, check that dedication, and you’ll find the answer. Because despite the cover, despite the movie, this is essentially the story of decent coppers doing the most thankless job in the country and getting stabbed in the back by just about everyone. Particularly the courts.

At a distance of nigh-on forty years, it’s hard to take the apocalyptic warnings too seriously: despite everything, Britain somehow survived, and now has a tendency to look back on the law-abiding days of the Sixties and Seventies with the nostalgia that used to be reserved for the Thirties. There’s a hint of a Daily Mail editorial about some of the sound and fury … but that’s being unreasonably unfair, because this is a great piece of writing: tight, fierce and burning with a sense of betrayed humanity. It comes on as a state-of-the-nation address and it earns its right to be taken that seriously.

In the movie, Burton got all the accolades, but it was a fine cast-list: Ian McShane, Colin Welland and Donald Sinden were there, while the fabulously versatile Nigel Davenport (his next film was starring with Vanessa Redgrave as she gave us her Mary, Queen of Scots) portrayed the honest copper, Bob Matthews, and Cathleen Nesbitt (Rupert Brookes’ old flame, oddly enough) played Richard Burton’s mother. Top film. Top book.

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crime & punishment