Tag Archives: courtroom drama

Caveat Emptor

A Case of Redemption: A Novel by Adam Mitzner (Gallery Books, $26.00, 322 pages)

A Case of Redemption (nook book)

I generally have a problem with novels that deal with the law and the criminal justice system. That’s because they never feel quite “real” enough — meaning I can’t suspend my disbelief. This is a problem that was present in reading A Case of Redemption. I never felt like I had fallen into a fictional story; instead, my mind kept telling me, “You’re reading a legal novel written by someone following a plot outline.”

A primary issue with the story is that it sounds a great deal like the Paul Newman film, The Verdict. A lawyer faces tragedy and alcoholism and tries to re-start his life by taking on a big case. Here, it’s a criminal case rather than a civil one but as one of my relatives used to say, “Same difference.” Dan Sorenson was “a high powered New York City defense attorney…” until his wife and young daughter were killed by a drunk driver. Then the 43-year-old wreck of a man quits his practice and falls off of the planet into the bottle.

Ah, but soon he’s contacted by a young female lawyer, Nina Harrington — pretty much fresh out of law school — who convinces him to defend a rapper accused of a murder he insists he didn’t commit (but which he seems to have very accurately described in one of his compositions). What are the odds that Dan and Nina are going to get it on between the sheets? Oh, you see that coming, too?

Yes, much of what happens in this legal novel is predictable. Once you’re halfway through it, you may well be able to figure out who the bad guy is (no spoiler alert needed here). Unfortunately, it all concludes with an overly tricky ending that’s implausible. The conclusion reveals that the entire tale was a big red herring and you are likely to feel embarrassed about having spent so much time getting through it.

Since Mitzner is a practicing lawyer, there are a few realistic courtroom scenes, but they are highly structured. One never gets the “You never know what will happen next…” feeling that pervades true life courtrooms. So one’s time would be better spent reading a Scott Turow novel. Turow’s endings are tricky, but plausible.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Everyday I Write the Book

“Things in life are both big and small in equal proportion.”   The New York Chronicle

“Suspension of disbelief” is a phrase that is often used by book reviewers, and when it is, it’s usually not good news.   When someone states that they could not suspend their disbelief, it means that the story they were reading (or the film they were watching) never felt real.   I don’t know about others, but when I begin to read a fictional work that does not feel real, I get a mental picture of the writer in question at a computer struggling to figure out the next word, sentence, paragraph, chapter…  The choppy feeling of a not-quite-true creation overwhelms the potentially positive experience of encountering a new world.

I suspect that it’s hardest for someone to suspend their disbelief when they’re reading a novel about the very world that they inhabit.   Let’s say, for example, that I was to write a novel about a major, fictional rock star.   I think that actual rock musicians would be the toughest critics as they likely would find the story to be too “over-the-top” (not every rock band tears up hotel rooms), or find that it failed to reflect the tedium of life on the road.   Most likely, a musician would want to find a story that he or she could relate to – one that would equally balance the drama and boring aspects of the professional music maker’s life.   And, he or she would want to read a story in which – as in life – what comes next is never predictable.

My experience of having worked in many aspects of the criminal justice system may explain why it is usually the hardest for me to locate the supposed realism in courtroom dramas and crime novels.   I usually find fault from two different perspectives.   Firstly, these novels often start off with plot lines that are far too tricky; too many authors seem to have been influenced by the shenanigans of John Grisham, who seems to need overly complicated and unrealistic stories to grab the reader’s interest.   The same is true for the too-clever endings inspired by another successful writer, Scott Turow.

The plot for these books often centers around something that’s not going to happen – like the killing of a major U.S. senator’s wife (at a time when the senator just happens to be having an affair).   But most of what goes on in the criminal justice system is not so dramatic.   If I were to attempt to write a book about the average case, it might involve a young man who has experienced numerous small scrapes with the law before some friends encourage him to ride along with them on a lark.   It’s during this ride that someone gets killed and our young man – being the only one with a criminal history – takes the fall.   Yes, I know, many publishers would think this is relatively dull stuff, but as John Lennon used to say, “…that’s reality.”

The second issue I have with these novels is that despite the dramatic plots, the characters often seem to be cut from cardboard.   They’re pretty lifeless compared to the often big personalities that inhabit the criminal justice system.   There are public prosecutors who wear $1,000 suits and drive cars meant for millionaires.   There are prosecutors and public defenders who don’t necessarily love their co-workers, and some prosecutors and public defenders have been known to have a drink together.   Some deputy district attorneys don’t always get along with law enforcement officers.   In other words, life in the halls of justice and the courtrooms is a bit messier than it’s portrayed in the latest crime novel.   It’s also certainly not as “clean” as a typical episode of Law and Order.

I think what’s forgotten is that these are real human beings, with great strengths and corresponding flaws; and they live and work in an imperfect world, a somewhat less than perfect criminal justice system.

What’s the moral of this article?   Simply that I’d love to see criminal justice system-based fiction that tones down the overly dramatic plots while raising the volume on the unique individuals who make their living within the law.   Is there a writer who gets the characters right?   Yes, I’m glad you asked…  Interestingly, former prosecutor Marcia Clark (Guilt By Degrees, Guilt By Association) seems to portray some very realistic figures in her novels, although she cloaks them in the guise of sarcasm and humor.   Still, it’s a start and want-to-be crime novelists would do well to read her work, and/or spend some actual time with the prosecutors, public defenders, defense attorneys, and policemen and policewomen who work very tough jobs that are so very rarely accurately portrayed.

Joseph Arellano

Pictured:  Guilt By Degrees: A Novel by Marcia Clark (Mulholland Books).   One courtroom drama that was highly recommended by this site is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton (Minotaur Books, $19.99, 368 pages); also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

This article is one in a periodic series called Turn The Page.

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This is the Day

Defending Jacob: A Novel by William Landay (Delacorte Press, $26.00, 432 pages)

William Landay’s courtroom novel, Defending Jacob, is interesting and engaging, but is it – as per the hype – this year’s version of Presumed Innocent?   Sorry, but no, it’s not.   This is one of those novels that comes down to the fake ending, where there are usually one or two twists that the reader didn’t anticipate or see coming.   But, this time around, the reader has to deal with three feints and it all seems a bit much.   The author is a graduate of the Boston College of Law, and I presume that at some point he heard an instructor state that, “The game is not worth the candle.”   That’s a law professor’s way of saying that a lawyer’s or judge’s argument is far too clever to be convincing; which is precisely the way I felt about Defending Jacob.

This is a story about a Chief Assistant District Attorney who takes on a case involving the stabbing death of a 14-year-old student at his own son’s high school.   It turns out his son is the prime suspect and, before you can sing a song by the 80s band The The, he’s banished from the office.   The next thing he knows, he’s the second chair to a criminal defense attorney who’s defending his son on a charge of murder.

“After a thousand years or so of refining the process, judges and lawyers are no more able to say what is true than a dozen knuckleheads selected at random off the street.”

“…it was a little late in the day to be switching sides.   I was not sure I could bring myself to defend the same scumbags I had spent a lifetime locking up.”

What Landay does well – quite well – is to express in a firm and gruff voice his doubts (as a former prosecutor) about the workings of the American criminal justice system.   But his protagonist Andy Barber comes off sounding less like a lawyer and more like one of those grizzled former cops who becomes a hard-shoe Private Investigator.   There were times, in fact, when I felt the story – set in 2007 – turn from color to black and white.   It sometimes seemed that, except for references to personal computers, I was reading something set in the 1950s rather than in near-current times.

Defending Jacob has its moments, but a better read in this genre is Tell No Lies: A Novel by Julie Compton, a taut courtroom drama that comes replete with “a surprise ending.”   That’s one surprise ending, not two or three.   Because when it comes to Scott Turow-style surprise endings, less is more.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Puppy Love

New Tricks: A Novel by David Rosenfelt (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 320 pages; also available as a Mass Market Paperback for $7.99)

You are in for a doggy treat – not to be confused with Milk Bone biscuits.   Author David Rosenfelt is a master of timing, understatement and spoofing.   This Andy Carpenter novel, New Tricks, is an all-around good read; a mystery complete with an attorney who has a reputation for defending dogs (of the canine variety), a temperamental and outspoken judge nicknamed Hatchet and a lady police chief from Wisconsin who just happens to be the attorney’s long-distance girlfriend.   The cast of characters is enhanced by a friend who communicates with the attorney by singing the lyrics of popular songs.   The center of attention is Waggy, an eager and energetic Bernese puppy whose ownership is in dispute.

An exploding mansion with collateral damage that murders the owner is the attention-grabbing action that marks the beginning of the mystery story.   The plot twists, turns and then doubles back on itself.   There are plenty of red herrings, hidden motives, puns and double entendres that give an appreciative reader cause to laugh out loud.  

The plot twists and turns are worthy of The Rockford Files and 77 Sunset Strip.   For readers under the age of 50, author Ellen Raskin (The Westing Game) comes to mind.

Highly recommended.   A charming tail wagger!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Packed with shootings, explosions, murder, and gritty courtroom drama…  a treat.” USA Today

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A Thriller of a Giveaway

Harry Bosch is back, and this time it’s personal!

Thanks to Hachette Audio, we have two copies of The Reversal by Michael Connelly to give away in unabridged audio book form.   Yes, not one word has been cut from the story and it comes with a bonus.   The Reversal is read on 10 CDs by actor Peter Giles (who narrated Michael Connolly’s prior novel) and the bonus is a 2 CD set containing complete, uncut, copies of The Reversal and The Brass Verdict in MP3 format.   That’s right, this audio book box contains 12 CDs and has a retail value of $39.98!

Here is the official synopsis of this legal thriller from the mega-selling author Michael Connelly:

Longtime defense attorney Mickey Haller never thought he could be persuaded to cross the aisle and work for the prosecution.   Then convicted child killer Jason Jessup, imprisoned for twenty-four years, is granted a retrial based on new DNA evidence.   Haller is convinced Jessup is guilty, and he takes the case on the condition that he gets to choose his investigator, LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, and his second chair, deputy DA Maggie McPherson.

But there’s a serious political taint on the case, and Haller and McPherson must face off against a celebrity defense attorney who has already started trying it in the media.   Borsch searches for the runaway eyewitness who was the key to Jessup’s original conviction, but that trail has long since gone cold.   Jessup, out on bail, grandstands for an eager press by day, but his nocturnal actions make Haller and Bosch fear the worst: this killer may have just gotten started.

“Connelly may be our most versatile crime writer…  Reading this book is like watching a master craftsman build something that holds together exquisitely, form and function in perfect alignment.”   Bill Ott, Booklist.

So how can you win a copy of this audio book with the bonus MP3 discs?   It’s simple, just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address, or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, tell us what you’d like Santa to bring you for Christmas this year (We will keep it a secret, OK?).  

You have until Wednesday, December 22, 2010 at Midnight PST to submit your entry or entries.   In order to be eligible to receive the audio book box, you must live in the continental United States and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to P. O. boxes or to business-related addresses.   And, as always, Munchy the cat reserves the right to change the contest rules – including the closing date – at any time.   So check back periodically at this site or risk getting your entry/entries in too late.  

This is it for the complex rules.   Be careful out there; good luck and good reading!  

 

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Faking It

False Convictions by Tim Green (Grand Central Publishing)

“Even in the suit, (Judge) Hubbard’s thick neck and big glasses gave him the air of a character actor playing a bit part on a low-budget cable movie.   Jesse Jackson kicked into gear with kisses, solemn hugs and jive handshakes.”

This reviewer was expecting something more substantial than what is found in Tim Green’s latest legal novel.   This is not a courtroom drama in the style of Scott Turow or an exciting part real, part fantasy, novel like those written by John Grisham.   No, instead it comes off as simultaneously low-budget and overdone.

The three main characters are stereotypes, none of them quite believable.   One is a young and brilliant shark of a lawyer, Casey Jordan, who, naturally, makes men melt at the sight of her in short skirts.   Another is a young male reporter who is God’s gift to women and knows that he’s more beautiful than Casey.   And lastly there’s the billionaire who can drop $2 million in a single afternoon in order to have Brad Pitt, Al Gore and Jesse Jackson join him at a press conference.   He also happens to move about in the fastest non-military airplane known to the world.

Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before.   A highly attractive young white woman is raped and savagely murdered.   The law enforcement authorities decide to arrest a young black man for the crime, and he’s sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.   Only maybe he didn’t do it.

In order to rectify injustices like this our friendly billionaire establishes a project to give sight to the blinded Lady Justice.   He offers Casey, who is so incredibly successful that she’s already been the subject of a TV movie, a cool $1 million retainer to take on the defense of only two wrongly convicted persons.   The billionaire may be Batman but he needs lawyers like Casey to serve as Robin.

The typical reader is going to expect a lot of twists and turns before things are resolved and the wrongly convicted person is freed.   Except that everything falls into place too quickly and about sixty-five or seventy percent of the way through this novel, the innocent guy is freed while one Judge Hubbard hangs out with Al Gore, Brad and Jesse.   Wait a second, there are too many pages left for this to be the end, which means…

Yes, the old fly in the ointment event occurs and everything suddenly goes to heck in a hand basket.   The best laid plans of billionaires go awry.   The same goes for the plot of this novel.   It goes into overtime before the game has been played out.

If Green had stopped when all the loose ends were tied, he might have been credited with serving up a nice little novella.   But this one goes on a bit too long and, strangely enough, it’s hard to spot the author’s legal training in the telling.

The reader seeking a fun novella in this genre might like Denis Johnson’s campy Nobody Move, just released in trade paperback form.   Or novels like Try Fear or Try Darkness by the highly talented James Scott Bell.   And then there’s True Blue by David Baldacci.   All of these are rides in a fastback mid-engine Porsche compared to Green’s tale, which felt to this reviewer like a ride down the block on a Vespa.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from Grand Central Publishing.

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Almost Innocent

Innocent by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing)

No one writes better courtroom dramas than Scott Turow.   In Presumed Innocent, he told the story of chief Deputy District Attorney Rusty Sabich.   When Sabitch’s mid-western boss loses his election bid, Sabich – who is married – is charged with the murder of a former colleague-mistress.   His prosecutor is Tommy Molto, a lawyer who started in the office at the same time as Sabich.

With this novel published in 1987, Turow created a new genre, the crime novel with the shocking and surprising ending.   All of a sudden a number of novels ended with an unexpected twist and such endings came to be known as “Turow-style endings.”   One of the best examples of the application of Turow’s style was Tell No Lies by Julie Compton.

Now, after these many years, Turow has done something he said he would never do, which is to provide us with a sequel to Presumed Innocent.   Boomers are going to buy it by the millions no matter what the reviews might say.   As one avid reader said to this reviewer, “Everything Turow writes is going to be big.”

With Innocent, we reconnect with Rusty Sabich who is now a state appeals court judge seeking a seat on the state’s Supreme Court.   Things look promising for Sabich, except that his brilliant wife has been quite ill and he’s once again made the mistake of taking a mistress – one who is literally his lawyer son’s age.   When Sabich’s wife dies in bed, he stays with the body for 24 hours before contacting the police.   This is rather odd behavior for a judicial officer, and Tommy Molto – the man who unsuccessfully prosecuted Sabich earlier – now sees a chance for a re-match.

So, yes, this is a re-mix of the earlier story contained in Presumed Innocent.   The protagonist and the main characters remain the same, if only older (an aspect of the story that Boomers will latch onto).   No one, however, appears to be any the wiser.

As always with Turow, the courtroom scenes soar even if the rest of the telling is more down to earth.   Turow presents the criminal justice system as a gritty one where normal people are “caught in the thresher called justice.”   This is not your sanitized version of justice.   At one point a fellow prosecutor suggests a theory of Mrs. Sabich’s death to Molto and he shakes his head in disdain:  “It sounded like Law and Order.   A little too tidy.”

In real courtrooms, justice is not tidy, pretty or predictable.   If there is one thing that Mr. Turow should be credited with, it is with getting this message out.   The criminal justice system is staffed with dedicated and talented professionals, but often even they cannot see what’s coming around the next corner.   In Innocent, prosecutor Molto is doing a bang-up job examining Sabich until he makes a cardinal mistake, asking a question for which he does not know the answer.

Little more should be divulged about the plot except to say that the story is resolved before one arrives at the final page.   This will likely surprise some of Turow’s fans, but he has matured and has no need to make use of the literary device he invented.   Is Innocent just as good a read as Presumed Innocent?  

In the opinion of this reviewer, Innocent comes off as a four-fifths scale version of Presumed Innocent.   Which means it is nevertheless better than 95 or so percent of the courtroom dramas you can find out there.   See, no surprise here.

Highly recommended.

Innocent was released by Grand Central Publishing on May 4, 2010.   A review copy was provided by Grand Central/Hachette Book Group.

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