A very English affair

Earlier this year, when barrister Dexter Dias was in Manchester promoting his first novel False Witness, a stranger approached him and said: “You owe me everything, mate.”

Intrigued as to why a stranger should be taking the credit for his success, Dias was reminded that this was the Waterstones' salesman who persuaded him to approach thriller writer Ruth Rendell at her book signing in Manchester two years before.

Dias, a Rendell fan, had an idea for his own psychological crime story but believed his busy life as a barrister in the real crime world would never give him time to write it.

“At the time I was in the middle of a high-profile murder case and had another murder, four armed robberies and an international drugs trial coming up. When I told her this she said: 'If Anthony Trollope could write all those novels as a civil servant you can write one as a barrister.'”

Dias' meeting with Rendell and a note of encouragement from her spurred him into action. For three months he scribbled away at every opportunity. “I often get ideas at the most inconvenient of times,” he said. “I got the idea for my fourth book in a Bristol hotel at three

o'clock in the morning. I was defending some drug dealers but I had to sit up until dawn writing down my thoughts before they disappeared.”

His debut novel False Witness was published in April. Since then he has completed his second novel, Error of Judgement, and is in the final stages of writing novels three and four. He is also talking to Channel Four about a screenplay.

False Witness, which Dias describes as “a very English courtroom drama”, is currently in the top 20 bestseller legal thriller list in Britain and has been well-received in a dozen countries, including the US, Japan, Australia, Holland and Italy. He said: “I wanted to write something very English, with English lawyers, English crimes and English courts. America has a monopoly on crime and murder (last year more legal thrillers were written than murders committed in the US) and I wanted to do something to change that.”

His debut novel, with London's Old Bailey and Temple as the backdrop, depicts a Bar ridden with sexism, racism, infidelity and hard drinking. The central character, criminal barrister Thomas Fawley, has observed many miscarriages of justice, abuses of power and inequalities over the years. “I was trying to tell the reader about the realities of life at the Bar so that people can make up their own minds,” said Dias.

“I would never use my work to preach or use details of one of my own cases to bash someone over the head with. However, I don't think I'd disagree with some of Fawley's accusations about goings-on in the Bar.”

Dias' work as a criminal barrister is far removed from the tales of frenzied sexual ritual found in False Witness. He has practised at Garden Court Chambers, civil liberties specialists, since 1988, after a law and politics degree at Durham University. Dias specifically represents people disadvantaged by poverty and discrimination and has taken on cases involving M11 demonstrators, the Stonehenge hippies, poll tax demonstrators and campaigners against livestock export. “The cases I do are highly politicised and too important to trivialise by putting them into fiction,” he said.

Despite his sudden success as a writer Dias is still committed to his work at the Bar. “I feel strongly about the abuse of people's rights in this country. As a criminal defence lawyer you are the last line of defence that vulnerable people have when up against the Metropolitan Police, the CPS, and the court system.

“At the moment I want to continue to write and practise at the Bar because to some extent they feed off each other. Writing is a discipline which has helped me waffle less in court and to tell the story from the defendant's point of view. The Bar obviously gives me the background material I need for my writing and on the publicity side it has given me public speaking experience.”

At the moment Dias is confident that he can continue to practise at the Bar and write at least one book a year, but he admits that it will mean working every spare minute he has.

Within his chambers Dias says the book has provoked mixed reactions because some of his colleagues are worried that he will be forced to give up the Bar. “A few of them have even admitted that they have always wanted to write a novel. Most of them, however, just want a free copy.”