Archive for Legal Thriller

Julia Keller: Fast Falls the Night

I have a real respect for writers who pull off the feat of condensing a book into the space of a single day. One of my favorite mysteries, Ngaio Marsh’s Night at the Vulcan (1951), takes place in the space of a single night, and while Ms. Keller is far removed from Ms. Marsh in time, theme, setting, and protagonist, they share a knack all good storytellers have. I think it’s a matter of pacing, the right amount of being invested in the characters, and some sort of indefinable magic. Marsh’s stories are lighter and more optimistic than Keller’s, who sets hers in a far more brutal time and place.

It’s sad to think that 21st century West Virginia is more brutal than post-WWII London, where Marsh set her novel, but there it is. Keller’s central character, prosecutor Bell Elkins, is weary: weary of her non-stop job, and weary of the opioid crisis that’s overtaken her little town of Acker’s Gap. As the novel opens, there’s an overdose in a gas station bathroom and things go from bad to worse as overdoses and fatalities pile up, apparently from heroin laced with another, even more deadly, drug.

Balancing theme with narrative impetus – something that’s aided by the short time frame – Keller’s book is never didactic or preachy. She gets her message across just fine by showing, not telling. It’s clear the overtaxed law enforcement, paramedic and medical personnel can’t respond to every crime. They have to overlook the small in favor of the big and as overdoses pile up, it’s all they can do to keep up and simply react.

Keller isn’t a storyteller without complexity, however, and within the pages of this novel are Bell’s character, working relationships, family and romantic life as well as the story of a young officer named Jake. His possible romance, his life and the way he puts the pieces of the drug stories together take on an almost epic turn within the tight confines of this well paced and constructed novel.

There’s a tight balance in this book between message – the opioid crisis, or the “Appalachian Virus”; narrative, and character. Significant events take place in Bell’s life as well as Jake’s but they are wrapped up in the story, and that’s as it should be. Novels are stories: the characters keep us invested, the prose speaks to our hearts, and the situation (in this case) breaks them. I’ve loved all of Ms. Keller’s books, but brutal as this one is, it is probably my favorite, a true achievement of style and substance.

Julia Keller: Sorrow Road

Sorrow Road

Julia Keller has quickly proven to be one of the brightest lights in the present mystery universe, crafting novels where character, plot, sense of place and a genuine human empathy and deep understanding combine seemingly effortlessly. This is another bravura effort by Ms. Keller, whose novels featuring prosecutor Belfa Elkins are set in tiny Acker’s Gap, West Virginia. As always Belfa is working flat out, as she’s nursing a broken heart from a self imposed “break” from her boyfriend and trying to adjust to her daughter living in far away Washington DC.

As the book opens, Bell’s daughter Carla is making a frantic middle of the night getaway from DC, where something quite obviously is terribly wrong though what it is is not revealed until much later in the story. Carla arrives on her mother’s doorstep the night after Bell had met an old frenemy at a bar.   The woman, Darlene, a highly successful DC attorney, has just lost her father to Alzheimer’s. Despite his advanced condition, she’s not sure his death was natural and she begs Bell as a favor to look into it. Bell is mulling it over but switches to detective mode when Darlene is killed in a one car accident the very same night she and Bell met for drinks.

Thus the parameters of this complex, moving story are quickly set – it’s Carla’s story as well as the story of Bell’s investigation into the death of Darlene’s father. The book then goes back in time to follow the lives of three young Acker’s Gap men, one of whom, it becomes quickly apparent, is the man whose death Bell is investigating. How they relate to each other as adults, to the present day story, and the terrible secret they all share is the main thread that’s unraveled through the book.

Keller examines the part a community plays in forming character, in maintaining and setting character, and the way a small community can hold and keep a secret. The formation of memory and the losing of memory are also key to this story. While loving acts and relations can be forgotten, so can painful ones, leaving the ones with the memories exactly where? As always Keller’s examination of the human heart in all its messy glory is one of the biggest reasons this series is to be revered, enjoyed and thought about after the last page is read.

Allison Leotta: Law of Attraction

Law-of-AttractionAllison Leotta’s first novel featuring prosecuting attorney Anna Curtis is a hard- to-stop-reading type thriller, with an interesting central character and a tight plot. Leotta’s Anna has a background including domestic violence – her father beating her mother – and she’s become an attorney for that very reason: to help people like her mother. As the book opens she is on “papering room” duty – processing papers as cases come in, and one of them involves a bleeding young woman who has been beaten by her boyfriend.

Any novel that wants to grab and hold the reader’s attention needs to make the reader feel something for the eventual victim. In this case the young woman, Laprea, is caught up in a cycle of violence with the father of her children, D’marco. Anna’s heart goes out to the young woman as she encourages her to bring charges. When the case eventually does come to court, however, Laprea has had a change of heart, and she recants. Everyone, even Anna, understands what has happened, especially as Laprea and D’marco take off from the front of the courthouse together.

Taking place in real time, it’s sometimes months between incidents, through Leotta telescopes the time so the pacing of the novel is swift. When the inevitable happens and Laprea is killed, the obvious suspect is the one who is arrested, and that’s the last obvious thing that happens as the plot begins to twist from that point on.

Along with her work life, Anna dates an defense attorney she breaks up with as he’s the one defending D’marco. She can’t stomach that. She and her boss become close but there are all kinds of road blocks, including a decision of Anna’s that sends her back to the purgatory of the papering room.

This is a zippy novel that had me flipping pages faster and faster – especially toward the end – to find out what happened next. Anna has a Michigan connection (she grew up in the Flint area) and the newest novel in her saga, A Good Killing, is set in Michigan almost entirely. This is a book by a home-state girl made good, and I look forward to more installments from this skillful author.

Julia Keller: Summer of the Dead

Summer of the Dead by Julia KellerJulia Keller is quite simply a spectacular writer. Her Bell Elkins series, set in Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, has been deepening and improving with each installment. In this novel, Bell’s sister Shirley has returned from a long stint in prison, and the two are uncomfortably adjusting to living together. Bell is also dealing with a number of murders county wide, some of which seem related, some of which don’t. The atmosphere hanging over Acker’s Gap, like the summer heat, is oppressive and stifling.

While this is a mystery novel with a solidly clever plot, Keller has other things on her mind as well. She portrays, all too heartbreakingly, various family situations (including Bell’s) that require hard work on the part of one family member in the service of another. Most vividly I think she portrays the situation of Lindy Crabtree, who works nights at the local gas station and whose father, a retired miner who may or may not have dementia, lives with her.

Keller utilizes her setting as an integral part of her story, Odell Crabtree being an illustration. Odell is Lindy’s father and he has worked so long in the mines that he is no longer comfortable standing up straight. Lindy has arranged the basement for him in as close an approximation to a mine – including rocks, tree branches and darkness – as she can, and it’s there that Odell seems to feel most at home. Below, her father lives in a mine; above, Lindy lives in the world of books, isolated except at work.

While Acker’s Gap is a small town, the various family situations portrayed by Keller are realistic in that the caretakers feel alone, a bit desperate, and locked in a pattern of caregiving. Ultimately the grief and care is borne alone by them, and included in this mix are Bell and her buddy, Sherriff Nick Fogelsong, whose mentally ill wife weighs on him just as Bell’s sister weighs on her.

Keller seems interested in what it means to let go; what it means to give freedom to a damaged person; and the necessity of asking for help. High minded concerns indeed. However, Keller shares with her spiritual sister Sharyn McCrumb something vital to a great mystery writer: a natural and compelling storytelling ability. Without the story, her use of setting, rich characterizations and thematic concerns would all would fall flat, in my opinion. Happily, Keller is the total package, and her continuing development as a writer is one I’m delighted to follow. Like McCrumb, I think she can be one of the genre’s greats.

Nancy Allen: The Code of the Hills

Code-of-the-HillsNancy Allen refers to her first novel as “hillbilly noir” but I’d call it “legal noir,” as it’s a harrowing, inside look at the legal system and its many faults. It’s also a harrowing look at life in a small town in the Ozarks: Barton, Missouri. Allen’s main character is a prosecutor named Elsie who apparently has the world’s most horrible boss and she’s working on the world’s most horrible case.

I think folks who work sex crimes are probably vastly underpaid for the heartbreaking and soul-sucking work they do – unless they are each paid a million bucks a year, they’re working for us for free. Despite Elsie’s flaws and blind spots she’s still fighting to do what’s right because that’s the way she works. Elsie has a special soft spot for child victims, and the case she’s assigned in this novel is a doozy.

Charlene, Kristy and Tiffany Taney live with their brute of a father and their wreck of a mother, only now the dad is in jail and charged with rape. The mother had been abused herself as a child and takes it almost as a given. As Elsie points out to her boss the holes in their case preparation and goes to interview the girls, she’s horrified by the details.

While Elsie’s boss is a stumbling block she’s given able assistance by the sympathetic and practical Detective Ashlock. She’s also juggling a new romance with a hunky cop, Noah, though their schedules make it hard for them to get together. Elsie’s boss is politically motivated and unavailable whenever Elsie needs her, so the details and work of the case fall to her, and Allen gives the reader an excellent look at the ways a legal case is meticulously assembled.

After the father is charged Elsie is targeted by a “men’s rights” group who think no one should interfere with the head of the household. She’s also subjected to a series of humiliating pranks which leave her nervous and unsettled.

Her witnesses, who are, after all, children, need a lot of hand holding and preparation, and the opposing lawyer is eager to discredit them even though they are children. Allen throws plenty of road blocks in Elsie’s path as she steers her way through what is in every way a difficult case. As a reader you want the father in prison as much as she does – the idea of him getting to tiny six year old Tiffany at some point is completely chilling.

Whether Allen meant to or not – and she’s not writing a polemic – this is a truly feminist novel in the way it looks at the different ways women are powerless or made to feel that way in our society, starting, as she illustrates graphically, sometimes when they are children. Early on Elsie thinks to herself, “As women practicing law in the Ozarks, both Elsie and Bree had to battle for respect…” Neither woman plans to go down without a fight – or at all – but they are at times fighting a very uphill battle.

Allen also makes some strong points about battered women throughout the novel, something she really reinforces through her storytelling toward the end of the book. If this book doesn’t make you fighting mad, Allen probably hasn’t done her job. While I never doubted the final outcome, the plot twists were enough to keep me turning pages non-stop as I got to the end, and I didn’t quickly stop thinking about Allen’s story.

Adam Mitzner: A Case of Redemption

While there are many, many legal thrillers out there, there are few of them that I personally enjoy.  I am a big fan of David Ellis, as well as a sometime fan of Scott Turow, Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline, and now I can add to that short list Adam Mitzner.  This is apparently his second novel, though, like Ellis, he doesn’t write a series.  Like many other writers of legal thrillers, he is also an attorney.  The legal backdrop, to this non-attorney, seems very authentic.

Taking a plausibly ripped from the headlines storyline, the novel centers on murder charges against a rapper whose stage name is Legally Dead.  His back story is that he was shot four times and left for dead, thus the name.  L.D. (as he’s called by his friends) is in prison for clubbing his girlfriend, a famous singer (think Beyonce or Rihanna type famous) named Roxanne.   The thing that seems to clinch his guilt is the fact that one of his songs – now getting constant airplay – discusses killing a singer with a baseball bat.  As a final nail in his coffin, it was written before Roxanne’s murder.

Enter our hero attorney, Dan Sorenson.  Like many a David Ellis hero, Sorenson is damaged goods.  He’s recently lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and has been in hibernation, comforted mainly by a bottle of scotch.  He comes out of it only when asked to take L.D.’s case by another lawyer, Nina, who believes in L.D.’s innocence.

Dan isn’t buying the innocence bit but he agrees to meet with L.D. He’s feeling guilty about another client he got off,  as well as the way he neglected his wife and daughter by working all the time.  In short, he’s looking for some karmic atonement and when he meets L.D. he thinks maybe he’s found it.  For some reason he, like Nina, is convinced of L.D.’s innocence and before he knows it he’s all in.  He and Nina set up shop in his apartment and go to town as best they can.

There are some givens in legal thrillers.  One is the unaccommodating – to the point of unfair – Judge.  One is the surprising background fact about the client.  One is the scruffy expert witness who supplies a vital clue. One is that the main character lawyer is in disgrace and working without the support of a large firm.  All of these tropes are present here, but the sting, as they say, is in the tail, and the ending of the story doesn’t disappoint.

The legal scrambling is completely believable, as is the portrayal of the former white shoe firm where Dan worked before the accident.  The trial – the obvious denouement – is saved for the end.  Like a good true crime book, a good legal thriller doesn’t need to spend too much time in the courtroom.

Mitzner is a good, page turning story teller.  Like another favorite popcorn thriller writer of mine, Michael Palmer, Mitztner has the narrative goods.  He has a good story to tell and he delivers, with a good number of unexpected twists.  I liked the main character.  I liked that he was looking for karmic justice.  And I like that the author  leaves it up to the reader to decide whether it’s been found or not.