Friday, January 22, 2010


Today my review of Kiwi lawyer David Bates’ debut novel, BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE, was published in the print edition of NZLawyer magazine (issue 128, 22 January 2010). The novel centres on a lawyer blackmailing a judge in order to get a dangerous client out of jail.

There have been few, if any, reviews of this book so far, so I am reprinting my review here for your information (since unless you are a Kiwi lawyer, judge or politician, you're unlikely to have access to the print version of NZLawyer magazine - and the reviews aren't placed online).

The author, Bates, is a practising barrister in Tauranga, and a former police officer – so I was interested to see how (and how well) he weaves his personal experience of crime and the law into his tale. The 62-year old Bates enlisted as a Seaman boy in the Royal New Zealand Navy in the early 1960s, before joining the New Zealand Police as a 19-year old. Over his 17-year police career he rose through the ranks to Inspector, before completing a law degree and becoming a barrister in 1982. He specialises in criminal defence work. You can see his legal website here.

Unlike the other Kiwi crime titles released in 2009, BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE is published by a small publisher, Polygraphia – so it’s also good to see a variety of publishers of varying sizes supporting local crime-related fiction writing. You can read a little more about the book and publisher here.

Beneath the Cherry Tree
By David Bates (Polygraphia NZ, 2009)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Lawyers, judges, blackmail, betrayal, hidden romance; Tauranga lawyer David Bates’ debut novel has plenty of dramatic elements. Having practiced as a criminal barrister for more than 20 years, it’s unsurprising he chooses to set a large part of BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE amongst the client interviews and courtrooms of the legal world. But this is no Grisham-esque legal thriller; instead a book that explores family and friendship, forbidden love and falls from grace.

Julian Paul is a Wellington barrister who likes the horses far more than his bank account does. Keeping mounting debts secret from his wife and children, Julian’s stress levels are skyrocketing, compounded by the death of his father Robert, a beloved member of the judiciary. When recidivist client Anthony Samuels is caught dead to rights on a major drugs charge, but still wants Julian to get him bail at any cost, Julian begins to see a way to navigate out of his financial dire straits. After all, if Samuels is that desperate, perhaps Julian can apply just the right amount of pressure to just the right judge? For an exorbitant fee, of course. Long-held secrets contained within his father’s private papers provide Julian with the means for the pressure; as well as the right judge – distinguished High Court jurist Freddy Dalton; his father’s wartime chum and lifelong friend. But will Julian really risk everything he has to help free Samuels? Will Dalton pervert the course of justice to protect himself, and his old friend’s memory?

Bates provides an intriguing set-up and spine to his story; sufficient to get readers wondering what will happen, caring about some of the characters, and curious enough to perhaps read to the end to find out. Unfortunately the ride along the way contains several missteps common to rookie novelists – missteps that pull the reader from the story, muffle the drama and tension, and prevent such mild curiosity being stoked to a burning desire to turn the pages. Passages of description unnecessarily repeat what should be clear from dialogue; point of view clumsily jumps around between characters within scenes; adverbs and adjectives are piled on to the extent they take away from what they’re describing; and everything seems ‘proclaimed’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘countered’, and ‘happily and modestly boasted’, rather than just said. The tension could also have been heightened if Bates made it clearer, before the final pages, that the ‘modern’ times of the novel are pre-Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986; considerably raising the stakes for those involved.

Bates also has a tendency to choose verbosity over vividness; he makes the budding writer’s mistake of thinking a long string of lesser-used words will create more style or impact than a well-chosen image evoked via simpler words. When you’re reading, you want to be transported into the world of the book – anything that makes you focus more on the words than the story behind them diminishes that experience.

Bates does weave interesting issues into his story, and does a good job slowly revealing the past to the reader. He also handles the central romance rather tastefully, when other writers may have strayed towards the lurid. Writing a novel is a difficult, difficult task; particularly when done as a side project to a job as taxing on time and mental resources as being a criminal barrister. Bates is to be commended for not only completing BENEATH THE CHERRY TREE, but getting his book published. I look forward to seeing the strides his writing may make if or when he chooses to write another.


  1. Craig - What a fair, balanced and thoughtful review! I enjoy novels that feature hidden secrets and ulterior motives, so some of the themes here really got my attention. As you say, it'll be interesting to see how Bates' writing develops...

  2. Stumbled across this review which I found extremely interesting given I have just read David Bate's novel. I'm no book reviewer, just your average Joe Bloggs reader who enjoys a good story with lots of twists and turns. I enjoyed it immensely and, inspite of my initial misgivings about the mix, thought Bates did a good job intertwining such diverse theme elements. The war elements were well researched too. I didn't mind the the occassional verbosity, actually finding it refreshing from all the usual modern cliches and idiom used today and felt it gave me an insight into the language used in the Law profession back in the era in which the book is set. I found it fascinating working out the subtle undertones hidden behind actual words. What impressed me most though was the way it ended, no padding here,no quick tie up of loose ends like some novels of established authors I've read, and found it left me thinking "I wonder how the rest of their lives eventually worked out". It also left me looking forward to the next novel I hope Bates will write.

  3. Thanks for your comment Neville - There were definitely plenty of good things about the novel, but I guess for me some of them were masked a little too much by the writing style, and language usage.

    I am looking forward to seeing what Bates can come up with when he hones some of those things in later writings - because he certainly has some talent and touch for plot and theme etc.

    And I agree - the ending was very good, the way it didn't tie everything up in a bow.