When I bought Jessica Mann’s A Charitable End from Jamie Sturgeon recently, he told me a story that I never knew before. We were discussing Milward Kennedy, an interesting writer whom I’ve blogged about recently, and he mentioned a libel case in which Kennedy featured.
The story is told in a true crime book called The Ordeal of Philip Yale Drew. It’s written by Richard Whittington-Egan, a chap of immense knowledge, whom I’ve never met, but to whom I’ve chatted on the phone several times. He was very helpful indeed when I was writing Dancing for the Hangman, and was kind enough to read and comment on the manuscript.
Apparently, a novel that Kennedy wrote featured a thinly disguised version of Drew. The snag was that, though Drew had been suspected of murder, and was grilled at a coroner’s inquest, he was never tried and the case was never solved. Drew sued Kennedy and his publishers, Gollancz, for libel. The case was settled at the last minute before the trial, as often happens. The compensation didn’t do Drew much good, however, as he died only three years later. Kennedy’s barrister was H.C. Leon, who later became well-known as a writer under the name Henry Cecil.
This mishap rather messed up Kennedy’s career as a crime writer, or so it would seem. Until the court case, he had been prolific, a rising star of the genre. Afterwards, though he lived for thirty years or more, he only published four more books. A sobering story, to my mind. And a reminder of why it’s a good idea to try not to libel anyone. The trouble is, avoiding accidental libel is by definition rather difficult.