Familiar with the movie Villain with Richard Burton? It’s based on the wonderful Burden of Proof by James Barlow.
Villain has undergone something of a renaissance of late. Once pitched as a decent ‘60s British gangster film (even if it does date to 1971), it has become a regular on TV and has gradually gained the kind of reputation Get Carter built up in the 1990s.
But for me, for all its merits, it is a film that doesn’t quite do justice to the original (and largely forgotten) novel from 1968.
Burden of Proof is the story of three men mixed up in 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. Yes, textbook London gangster of the era.
Vic is a man feared and a man seemingly untouchable by the law and its representatives. He’s also a man devoted to his mother. Of course, he is. To her, he’s just an honest businessman done well. Yes, you can see where the inspiration for the character comes from.
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. It’s not exactly Sunday afternoon viewing with the in-laws.
The depth comes from the slow build-up of the story, the background to the DI’s life, the portrayal of Dakin and his empire and the way Lissner floats around town, just about making a living from the seedy underbelly of London.
But that’s not quite all. 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. Yes, Vic has some great suits on in the movie, but details like that don’t really come across in the original and grittier telling of the tale.
I would happily tell you more but I can’t without giving away the plot (although you might have an inkling from the movie). 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. You can read it for free on Amazon Unlimited too.
Saying that this book really suits the paperback format. It is the kind of 1960s pulp crime novel made for sticking in your work bag or having by the side of the bed to work through before you nod off. 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 as well as occasional cheap copies on Amazon. Oh yes, copies on eBay too.
Not really a collector’s book, although prices are on the rise these days. But one you’ll enjoy if you can pick it up at the right price.