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Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding review – the first British murder trial held in secret

Allan Chappelow was murdered in his home in Hampstead, north London.
Allan Chappelow was murdered in his home in Hampstead, north London. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Writing a true-crime book while the legal process is still unfolding is a high-stakes business. There’s no assurance of a neat outcome, or really any outcome at all. The goodies might turn out to be baddies, and all that righteous anger about a possible miscarriage of justice could leave you looking foolish. Trial dates slip, which means you’re deprived of a cracking finale in which grateful relatives embrace you on the courtroom steps while the police stand by looking sheepish. You could end up, in other words, with a sort of fretful trailing off …

All of which happens in Blood on the Page. Despite the title, which promises a “body in the library” plot from the golden age of detective fiction, Thomas Harding has written a real-life procedural about an uncharismatic crime involving unattractive people, which might, nonetheless, have important implications for us all. Or there again, it might not. For at the heart of the narrative is a big hole that, despite everyone’s best efforts, including those of Duncan Campbell of the Guardian, the British government has decreed cannot be filled for fear of imperilling national security.

The case does not start off sounding as if it has anything to do with Smiley or his people. It is a sad tale of an elderly man called Allan Chappelow who in 2006 is found dead under a metre-high pile of paper in his rotting house in Hampstead’s otherwise smart Downshire Hill. He’d lain there for weeks, which gives Harding the chance to reinterview all those forensic scientists who have unaccountably dedicated their lives to studying the life cycle of the blow fly on human corpses. Harding sketches what he has found out about Chappelow’s life. It reads as typical of Hampstead more than 50 years ago – leftish, educated, pointedly uninterested in material stuff (how ironic to know that Chappelow’s tumbledown home recently sold for £11m).

Chappelow’s home in Downshire Hill.
Chappelow’s home in Downshire Hill. Photograph: REX

The main suspect, whom the police quickly pick up, is a political refugee from Tiananmen Square, which sounds noble until you learn how he has been keeping busy ever since. London-based Wang Yam has a CV that includes setting up technology and property companies that seem to result in other people losing money. His tiresome boasts about being more important than he really is (the grandson of Mao’s third-in-command, apparently, though he won’t prove it) mean that you could certainly suspect him of low-level moral turpitude.

Yam is arrested after a quick check on Chappelow’s bank account reveals fraudulent credit card use in the days following the murder. But then it gets tricky. Yam’s defence is that he was given the hot credit cards by London-based gangsters on whom he had been informing to gather evidence for the authorities. At least I think that’s right – it’s impossible to know for certain since a significant part of his defence was heard in camera. No one but the judge, the jury and the barristers is allowed to know about it, the first time a British murder trial has been held in secret. Even speculating about the reasons why a public interest immunity certificate has been granted is to risk contempt of court. In the event, Yam was found guilty in 2009, sentenced to 20 years and last year failed to overturn the conviction on appeal.

What could Yam know that could account for the British government’s jumpy attitude (Labour’s Jacqui Smith signed the immunity certificates and this has been upheld under the Conservatives)? Could it be that political embarrassment rather than national security is actually at the heart of it? Yam’s crack defence teams have challenged the ruling in every way open to them – including trying to take the case to the European court of human rights and presenting it to the court of appeal – but without success. Yam, meanwhile, argues that only once the public hears how he was mixed up with organised crime will it become clear why he was handling stolen credit cards and, by extension, why he could not possibly be the murderer.

The problem for Harding is that this “national interest” narrative that hints at a high-level cover-up doesn’t appear to have anything to do with Chappelow’s murder. Indeed, the two seem increasingly unrelated. Patiently working through Chappelow’s backstory, Harding suggests it is more likely the 86-year-old was bludgeoned to death by a lover he’d picked up on Hampstead Heath. Most significantly, there’s a complete lack of forensic evidence linking Yam with the murder scene in particular and 9 Downshire Place in general.

None of this adds up to a narrative catharsis. Although Blood on the Page raises important issues, it is hobbled by trying to fit an inquiry into government’s possible misuse of the judiciary into the template of a true-crime narrative. It’s fine as far as it goes, but there is a more important, if less commercial, book trying to get out.

Blood on the Page: A Murder, A Secret Trial, A Search for the Truth is published by Heinemann. To order a copy for £17 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

This article titled "Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding review – the first British murder trial held in secret" was written by Kathryn Hughes, for The Guardian on Saturday 13 January 2018 09.00am

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