Family Secrets

Derek Malcolm

Hutchinson, (pounds) 14.99

Former Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm sought refuge in films from an early age. As he unreels the sensational story of his parents' marriage in this gently told but astonishing memoir, you appreciate that the most melodramatic Hollywood movie couldn't begin to compare with his family's dark history. Even Casablanca pales into banality beside the facts of the Malcolm family secret, a story Derek was only to discover, accidentally, as a 16-year-old.

Although this slim, photograph-strewn work is ostensibly Malcolm's autobiography, it is almost entirely the tale of his father and mother who, in 1917, were the subject of one of the most sensational trials in English criminal history. The scandal was hushed up as soon as it was over, but as Malcolm writes: ''There seems no way of keeping it to myself now they are no longer alive''.

Malcolm's father Douglas, a wealthy Scottish jute merchant and member of an ancient family from Argyll, married his mother, Dorothy, in 1914. In the summer of 1917, while on leave from the front, Douglas Malcolm discovered his wife was having an affair with a German gentlemen who called himself a count but was believed to be a spy, a Jew and a white slaver. Whether any of these details was correct was never proved, but one of his lovers had certainly been shot in France as a German spy.

Dorothy begged her husband for a divorce, but he refused. Instead, he confronted his wife's lover and shot him dead. There was never any suggestion that Douglas Malcolm acted in self defense, yet he was acquitted after a brief, packed-out trial at the Old Bailey.

Possibly the first case of crime passionnel tried in the British courts, it was the stuff of theatre: a beautiful but foolish woman, a dastardly blackguard and a war hero, who wanted only to protect his wife's honour. Yet what is perhaps even more remarkable than Douglas Malcolm's acquittal was the fact that he and Dorothy then spent the rest of their lives together.

Fifteen years after these grim events, Derek was born. He was not to know the source of his parents' troubles, but even as a child he could sense their misery. They were, he writes: ''Partners forged in purgatory, if not in hell.''

His mother was a socialite who, even after the trial, kept a string of admirers around her, among them Augustus John and Toscanini; his father was a countryman and officer, who loved riding and hunting. Whenever he kissed Derek, it was ''as if he were gently nuzzling a horse''.

Though he writes of them with deep affection, especially of Douglas who comes across as a loving father, Malcolm cannot disguise his total incomprehension of his parents' actions.

Of his father's crime he comments laconically: ''It is difficult not to wonder what possessed my father.'' Elsewhere, he gives a probable, and horribly revealing answer: ''He might have thought that anything was better than a much publicised and probably bitterly contested divorce.''

The fascination with this absorbing and cleverly concise memoir lies not only in the intimate detail of full-blooded tragedy, but in the transcripts Malcolm provides of the court case. Quoting prosecution, defense counsel and judge, he brings alive a moment in legal history when the patriotic and xenophobic mood of a nation at war clearly affected the judgement of the jury.

Using his father's extraordinarily vivid letters from the front to bolster contemporary sources, this ill-matched couple's son has recreated a memorable piece of social history without recourse to sentimentality or sensationalism. While his own bemusement and wistfulness colour the piece, it is a racy, seamless read, studded with entertaining anecdotes that reek of a bygone age.

Perhaps the best of these was when, during the Second World War, a German airman fell from his parachute into the garden while the family was having breakfast. ''Take the poor man a cup of tea'', said Dorothy to their manservant. When the pilot had been carted off by ambulance and police, the servant returned: ''I think he'll be all right, Captain,'' he said. ''But I can't say the same, I'm afraid, for the daffodils.''

It's the kind of detail Malcolm uses to great effect in capturing the behaviour of a couple who, even at their dramatic zenith in 1917, were part of a generation that was already being swiftly extinguished; who were, indeed, occasionally helped towards annihilation by their own hand.