Marcel Berlins obituary

Legal journalist, broadcaster, crime fiction critic and proud French citizen

Inspired by the performance of Orson Welles as the crusading attorney Clarence Darrow in the 1959 film Compulsion, the young Marcel Berlins set his sights on the law. Although he was never to emulate his legal heroes in any courtroom drama, the law was an important strand throughout a career in which Marcel, who has died aged 77 after suffering a brain haemorrhage, became a prominent legal journalist and broadcaster. In a sense, law-breaking played an important part in his second career, as a highly respected critic and reviewer of crime fiction.

His distinctive voice and delivery became familiar to Radio 4 listeners on Law in Action, which he presented from 1988 to 2004, and, from 2007, as a south of England team member on the cryptic Round Britain Quiz. His judgments on the latest crime fiction in his regular review column in the Times for 37 years became required reading for thousands of aspiring crime writers, agents and publishers, and he wrote a legal column for that paper and, later, the Guardian.

Marcel’s early life, in fact, could have come from the pages of a thriller. The only child of Pearl (nee Glauber) and Jacques Berlin, he was born in Marseille in 1941, in what was then Vichy France. It was a local official registering his birth who carelessly added an “s” to his surname. His father, originally called Jacob and from Riga in Latvia, was a hotelier who became a person of some interest to the Vichy authorities for being Jewish, leftwing and a suspected member of what was to become the resistance.

Following the Nazi occupation of southern France in November 1942, the family fled to the remote village of Cabrières d’Aigues, a resistance stronghold in the mountainous Vaucluse region where they were sheltered by a friend, the local resistance leader Roger Simon, for the duration of the war.

In peacetime, the Berlins returned to a battered Marseille but opted for a future in South Africa, emigrating in 1951 to Johannesburg, where, as a teenager, Marcel perfected his English by a dedicated reading of the works of Agatha Christie and Peter Cheyney. He began to read law at Witwatersrand University but was tempted to return to France to study Chinese art at the Sorbonne. On his arrival, he was promptly arrested for avoiding his military service, despite claiming, rightly, that his call-up papers had not reached South Africa.

Although he remained a proud French citizen to his death, Marcel saw no benefit in military service and moved in 1962 to London, where he studied law at the London School of Economics. On graduation, he took work writing law reports for the Times and never qualified as a barrister, seeing an alternative future in legal journalism.

He became a legal correspondent and leader writer for the Times in 1971, but with a change of editorship he opted for redundancy in 1982 and went freelance, although he returned to the paper as a reviewer of crime novels in 1983. His weekly legal column transferred to the Guardian in 1988 and continued up to 2010. In 1988, too, he began to present Law in Action, eventually recording 435 episodes.

His Guardian columns ranged above and beyond legal matters into films seen, music concerts attended (he was a great lover of classical music and a competent pianist), even meals consumed and, often, his split allegiance between his native France, where he had lived for only 13 years, and his adopted England. He was once particularly exercised at the prospect of Olympique Marseille meeting Aston Villa in a European Cup match, as he had opted to support Aston Villa as a youth, it being one English football team he could pronounce confidently.

His impish sense of humour shone through in many of his columns and in one, in 2002, ostensibly about bizarre trends in litigation, he claimed the right of every newspaper columnist “to the occasional shameless plug”, in this case to announce the premiere of a new play, Best of Motives, written by himself and the theatre director Lisa Forrell, who was to become his wife in 2005.

He wrote several books on legal themes and in 1982 he co-authored, with Clare Dyer, a Guardian colleague, The Law Machine, a guide to the justice system which became a standard text. In the 1990s he taught media law as a visiting professor at City University.

Exactly how many crime novels he reviewed in print over the years is open to question. In 2008, prompted by two fellow critics to compare numbers, the count certainly exceeded 1,000 and he was to continue to review regularly for a further 10 years. Not surprisingly, he was called upon as a judge for the Crime Writers’ Association Daggers and for awards at the annual Crimefest convention.

He was universally regarded as a fair and generous reviewer and one who always sought out and encouraged new talent in the genre. A few words of praise in a Berlins quote adorning the covers of paperback remain a treasured asset for hundreds of crime writers who never met him in person. Those who did remember an affable, thoughtful and fair-minded man who was exceptionally good company and could light up a room with a raucous, infectious laugh. While he took his reviewing duties seriously, in private correspondence he was hilariously funny and referred to invitations to lunch as requests to join him in “sluicing and troughing”.

When he married Lisa, he embraced the role of father figure to her children, Edward and Anna. They all survive him. Although resident in London, he was a regular visitor to France.

• Marcel Joseph Berlins, legal journalist, broadcaster and crime fiction critic, born 30 November 1941; died 31 July 2019


Mike Ripley

The GuardianTramp

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