I was rummaging through some old paperbacks recently and spotted a book I read a long time ago, certainly long enough to be due a second reading. That book is Burden of Proof by James Barlow.
You might not know the book, but you might well know the film that followed. That film was Villain, starring Richard Burton in the title role. It’s a good ‘60s British gangster film (even if it does date to 1971). But for me, a film that doesn’t do justice to the original (and largely forgotten) novel from 1968.
Burden of Proof is the story of three men in mixed up in the London’s gangland of the 1960s. First up is Vic Dakin, the man at the top of London’s crime scene. Soho kingpin, protection boss, the man behind all the big ‘jobs’ and as a sideline, psychopath and sadist. A man feared and a man seemingly untouchable by the law and its representatives. He’s also a man devoted to his mother. To her he’s just an honest businessmen done well.
Attempting to put an end to that crime empire is Detective Inspector Robert Matthews of the regional crime squad. He knows Dakin, knows what he is capable of and knows it will take something special to put an end to his reign of terror. More than simply getting him in the dock, that’s for sure.
Somewhere in the middle and trying to make a (dis)honest living is Wolfe Lissner, a Mr Fix-It around town. Selling pills in the clubs one day, arranging A to meet B for dubious purposes another. If there is money in his pocket to gamble at the end of the day, it’s job done. But Wolfe Lissner has another problem. He is Dakin’s reluctant love interest, which means he is walking a fine line between a life of luxury and a life not worth living.
The book tells their stories, as Dakin organises the gang and other crime bosses for a huge wages raid, Matthews attempts to nail Dakin for the job and Lissner does his best to keep Dakin on the street with the aid of some well-planned blackmail.
It sounds simple. It isn’t. There is a lot of depth in Burden of Proof, far more than the movie might suggest. It’s also a far more violent telling of the story too, which is saying something if you’ve seen the film.
The depth comes from the slow build up of the story, the background to the DI’s life, the portayal of Dakin and his empire and the way Lissner floats around town, just about making a living from the underbelly of London.
But there’s more than that. We get the copper’s family life, the crooked politician, the woman who unknowingly becomes the bait for Dakin’s alibi, the greed of the office worker tipping Dakin off about the big wages snatch and the suffering of those on the receiving end of Dakin’s muscle in the aftermath.
All of that played out against a backdrop of a less-than-swinging London.
I would happily tell you more but I can’t without giving away the plot. All I can say is that if you like the idea of a 1960s crime novel that doesn’t pull its punches, you should buy into this. I’ll add something else. If you enjoyed The Long Firm by Jake Arnott, this should be right up your street.
I would guess that Jake Arnott might well have been familiar with this book before he wrote The Long Firm. It really is cut from the same cloth. Completely different books for sure, but similar territory covered, albeit some decades later.
I was going to add that the book is hard to find and that you might need to dig around some secondhand sources. If you want the paperback you probably will have to do that, but if you want a digital version, the book has recently been reissued for the Kindle.
Saying that, this book really suits the paperback format. It is the kind of 1960s pulp crime novel made for sticking in your work back or having by the side of the bed. Not that it will be there for long – you’ll probably tear through this in a matter of days.
If you want a paperback copy of Burden of Proof, there are plenty of secondhand copies starting from under £1 at Abebooks online.