Tag Archives: law enforcement

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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Out of Control

The Descent of Man: A Novel by Kevin Desinger (Unbridled Books; $25.95; 272 pages)

Writer Kevin Desinger found a great setup for his debut novel.   Jim Sandusky, a good citizen and wine steward, is home one evening with his wife in a fine, quiet neighborhood when their peace is disturbed.   Jim looks out the second-story window to observe two men in the process of stealing his Toyota Camry.   Jim initially plans to go outside to write down the vehicle license number of the truck that the thieves have arrived in, but once outside he impulsively changes his mind and steals the truck….  Such is the effect of adrenaline on a once innocent man.

That’s right, our good citizen breaks the law before the two thieves get the opportunity to do so themselves; however, as one might expect, this is not the end of his problems, it’s merely the beginning as he now must deal with two violent criminal brothers (Larry and Wade Hood) and law enforcement.

It’s a great premise and starting point – but the execution doesn’t match up with the inherent possibilities.   Firstly, our good citizen Jim is a bit too calm – no make that far too calm – in the face of danger.   Even Sgt. Rainey, the police officer assigned to this strange case tells him that he’s too controlled in the midst of unforeseen events.   As a result, we never feel any actual fear for Jim’s safety, which takes a lot of the air out of this big balloon.

Secondly, there are some strange inconsistencies in the telling.   For example, Jim’s first encounter with the rotten Hood brothers occurs when he goes out to the street in front of his home in an attempt to write down a license plate number.   Yet, in the second half of the story, when he’s being staked out by someone who parks in front of his home each night in a clunker of a Mazda, Jim never thinks to write down the creep’s plate number.   This is even stranger when we remember that we’ve been told, earlier in the tale, that Jim has a pair of bird watching binoculars downstairs in the kitchen.   (This is the type of script inconsistency that’s destructive if left un-caught in the filming of a movie.)

We also see that Jim, who has never had any prior contact with those who live outside of the boundaries of the law, is pretty shrewd – as even Sgt. Rainey will be forced to admit – as he seeks to protect himself and his wife from the literal Hoods.   Yet Mr. Desinger goes to great pains to paint Jim as a foggy-headed protagonist (“…I would grope along blindingly until I simply disappeared into the fog.   I spent the day wandering through mental corridors in the fog.”), a man who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.   So which Jim Sandusky is the real Jim?

Another flaw has to do with the language.   Early on in the telling, Mr. Desinger’s style is awkward (it subsequently calms dawn) and the character dialogues never seem quite real.   Occasionally sentences feel as if they have words missing:  “…the cellar was where I kept the treasures that were no longer in distribution.   The cellar bottle was to represent what I thought the other wines were aiming for, the essence of the grape of interest.”   I’ve read the latter sentence at least 10 times now, and I still don’t know what meaning is supposed to be conveyed by it.

Truth be told, this is an engaging story but it just didn’t feel quite real enough.   The Descent of Man is like an almost great song played not very well.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   The Descent of Man will be released on May 3, 2011.

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(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet

Exposure: A Novel by Therese Fowler (Ballantine Books; $25.00; 384 pages)

Author Therese Fowler has written the 21st century version of Romeo and Juliet.   Fowler portrays the complexities of the modern-day teenage romance highlighted by cell phones, computers, and on-line social networking.   She does an excellent job demonstrating the dangers of our advanced technologies when it comes to teenagers and the sharing of personal information in her upcoming novel, Exposure.

The star-crossed lovers, Anthony Winter and Amelia Wilkes have everything in common, excluding the financial status of their families.   Their shared passion for theatre brings them together in their affluent high school’s production of As You Like It, which in verse summarizes their own love story:

No sooner looked but they loved

Their commitment to one another begins with a secret romance shielded from Amelia’s arrogant father, Harlan, who shelters Amelia with the primary goal of ensuring that she ends up with the ideal partner who will provide her with a rich life, not the poor unfortunate one he had as a child.   He hopes for Amelia to pursue a business degree at Duke University and to find a shadow of him, a man with money and power who will provide her with the wealth that he finds essential for happiness.

Anthony, the talented and non-conformist son of a single mother was abandoned by his father before he was born.  He is fortunate to attend Ravenswood, the esteemed private school where he meets Amelia, only because his mother, Kim, has been hired to teach Art and French.   Kim, a supportive mom doing the best she can to raise Anthony with the limited resources she has, supports the relationship between her son and Amelia, knowing all too well the power of love and romance.

As Amelia and Anthony spend their time contemplating their plan for the future they become closer and, as a result, intimate.  Following graduation Amelia will reveal both their relationship and plans to attend New York University for drama while they both pursue careers on Broadway.   Months away from graduation their relationship becomes physical and, being the artists that they are, commemorate their relationship through writings, texts, e-mails, and photos.   This intensifies their relationship, which is presumed to be private and innocent (Anthony is 18 and Amelia 17), while they are away from one another…

One unfortunate day Amelia’s father hacks into her computer and finds explicit photos of Anthony.   Outraged and presuming that his innocent, naive daughter has been the victim of a heinous crime, he instinctually calls the police and begins an investigation that results in a series of events altering the lives of everyone involved.

Fowler expresses the true nature and concerns of sexting, and the repercussions of the open access that our children have to the Internet and other related avenues for sharing information.

Yes, Exposure may also take you back to relive the story of your first love… or the one that got away.

Well recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Exposure will be released on May 3, 2011.

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The Case of the Wrong Place

The Magician’s Accomplice: A Commander Jana Matinova Investigation by Michael Genelin (Soho Crime, 336 pages, $25.00)

It’s a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, or is it?   Michael Genelin’s third Commander Jana Matinova mystery novel begins by introducing the reader to a charming, if somewhat opportunistic, starving student.   No sooner does the reader take a liking to the young chap, than poof, he’s gone.   Not in the magical, disappearing sense, more like a bang, you’re dead departure.  

The sinister undercurrent starts with the student’s death at breakfast in the dining room of an elegant Slovakian hotel and gains momentum as another murder takes place within hours, this time at the city prosecutor’s office.   The second  murder is by far the most traumatic for the Commander, as her lover (actually, her would-have-been fiance) is the victim of a telephone bomb.

The story is smoothly depicted in flawless English, somewhat reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s style in her Tuppence and Tommy mysteries.   Genelin draws the reader into his scenes with highly cinematic descriptions of the Eastern Europe locales where the action takes place.   The mystery might well be moonlighting as a sophisticated travelogue.   The cafes and their menus reflect the foods and traditions that make each city unique.   The Magician’s Accomplice is also reminiscent of the 1963 film Charade, starring Audrey Hepburn; however, Commander Matinova is no Audrey Hepburn.   Her character aligns better with Cary Grant’s character, for she’s truly a capable spy/law enforcement officer.

There are no gimmicks, or sleight-of-hand tricks, just dogged pursuit, plenty of worn shoe leather, and characters that are generally not what they appear to be.   The author obviously has first-hand knowledge of bureaucracy and law enforcement.   Each agency depicted in the story contains a full complement of the personalities one would expect to encounter, along with their gossip and tight cliques.

Although the settings are a bit exotic, the calm resolve of the main character is welcome and familiar.   This is not because the book is the third in a series; rather, Commander Matinova is the embodiment of today’s serious professional woman.   Society has come to expect her to suppress her raw emotions in the aftermath of disaster and soldier on.   She is able to carry on admirably as she embarks on an odyssey to placate her boss and secretly search for her lover’s killer.   The commander’s unlikely companion is an elderly magician who insinuates himself into her travels and ultimately aids the hunt for the murderer.

The Magician’s Accomplice is a classic police drama and mystery complete with a fine dedication to principles.   It is a joy to read because author Genelin knows how to write, in the very best sense of the word.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

 

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A Doggone Good Giveaway

We’ve loved the dog-related crime novels from David Rosenfelt.   We earlier reviewed both New Tricks (on December 17, 2009) and Open and Shut (December 18, 2009) and listed them both as highly recommended.   Now, Mr. Rosenfelt has a new book coming out soon, Dog Tags.   This Andy Carpenter series novel will be released on August 25, 2010 and will carry a list price of $24.99.   But we would like to give away a copy of Dog Tags for free.

The copy to be given away in this contest is an Advanced Reading Copy in pristine (A grade) condition.   Dog Tags is already rated as a 5-star book at Barnes and Noble.   Our intent is to choose a winner on Saturday, August 21, 2010 which should leave just enough time for the winner to receive the ARC on or near the book’s publication date.

Author David Rosenfelt is the former marketing president for Tri-Star Pictures.   He now lives in southern California with his family and stable of 35 dogs.   Here is a synopsis of Dog Tags:

A German Shepard police dog witnesses a murder and if his owner – an Iraq war vet and former cop-turned-thief – is convicted of the crime, the dog could be put down.   Few rival defense attorney’s Andy Carpenter’s affection for dogs, and he decides to represent the poor canine.   As Andy struggles to convince a judge that this dog should be set free, he discovers that the dog and his owner have become unwittingly involved in a case of much greater proportions than the one they’ve been charged with.   Andy will have to call upon the unique abilities of this ex-police dog to help solve the crime and prevent a catastrophic event from taking place.

Interested?   In order to enter this book giveaway, here’s all you have to do.   Just post a message here with your name and e-mail address, or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   (E-mail addresses will only be used to contact the winner.)   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, explain why you think a dog would make a good or great crime detective.  

The winner – whose name will be chosen at random by Munchy the cat – will be contacted by e-mail and asked to supply his/her residential mailing address ASAP.   Yes, it must be a residential (street) mailing address in the U.S. rather than a P.O. box or a business-related address.    

You have until midnight PST on Friday, August 20, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   Good reading and good luck!

“I’ve got a thing about dogs; I am totally and completely crazy about them…  Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the criminal justice system, but the average dog I know is paws and shoulders above my species.”   David Rosenfelt

Note:  Dog Tags will be published by Grand Central Publishing, part of the Hachette Book Group U.S.A.   To read our earlier reviews of books by David Rosenfelt just enter his name in the SEARCH IT! box on this site and hit enter.

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Freedom Rules

Unbillable Hours: A True Story by Ian Graham (Kaplan)

“Mario’s case was my personal salvation…”

This is a nonfiction story of a person finding freedom.   Initially, it appears to be the story of one Mario Rocha, convicted of a murder in the Los Angeles area and sentenced to life in prison.   But it is actually the story of Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked for five years in the white shoe law firm of Latham Watkins.   Graham was one of a class of 47 first-year associates hired by the L.A. firm.   Only three of them remained working there after five years.

Graham’s telling of the overwrought work environment at Latham Watkins brings John Grisham’s The Associate to real life.   Experienced and new attorneys find themselves pulling all-nighters, sometimes wearing the same clothes for three days.   Much of the work involves looking through truckloads of documents, and responding to interrogatories in major corporate litigation cases.   Graham comes to see that he is “simply unsuited” to working in this environment, where one’s professional life is dedicated to “resolving the problems of, or enriching, corporations.”

To Graham’s good fortune, Latham is committed to pro bono work.   “Pro bono public – for the public good – is a tradition of the legal profession focused on the idea that every lawyer should devote at least a portion of his or her time to representing indigent clients or worthy causes for free.”   The young attorney Graham volunteers to work with two senior, experienced attorneys on the case of The People vs. Mario Rocha.

At 16, Rocha attended a night-time party that was crashed by at least two gang members.   A young man who was celebrating his college admission was killed that night.   This happened at a time when there was pressure from all levels (federal, state and local) for the City of L.A. to do something about its gang problems.   The two shooters are identified pretty quickly, but Rocha is also arrested after being identified in a photo lineup by attendees of the party.

There are multiple issues with the evidence against Rocha, but he is nevertheless arrested and charged with homicide.   He is tried with the two known gang members, the presumption being (although Graham argues that it was never proven at the trial) that he was also a gang member.   Rocha’s family members are confident that he’ll be acquitted, but they hire an attorney with minimal experience who devotes just eight hours of preparation to Mario’s defense.   As a result, Rocha is convicted by a jury and sentenced to life behind bars.

This is the background to the events covered in Unbillable Hours.   Graham finds himself driving to Calipatria State Prison to meet with Rocha and, surprisingly, discovers that he’s developed a “goddamned conscience.”   In other words, he’s found a cause that offers rewards greater than the mega bucks he’s getting at Latham (where the garage houses so many new Mercedes and BMW automobiles that it is said to look like a German automobile dealership).   But overturning a criminal conviction in California is virtually impossible, so Graham’s going to have to move Heaven and Earth to do so.   They also may need a miracle, which comes in the form of a Catholic nun’s efforts.

It’s no surprise that Mario Rocha is eventually freed, and this telling of how that is accomplished is fascinating.   Yet, again, Unbillable Hours is more about Graham than it is about Rocha.   When Graham initially visits Rocha at Calipatria he begins to ponder what a “loss of freedom” means.   He also comes to see that Rocha is a very intelligent young man who was not privileged to get the same breaks in life as Graham, the son of a lawyer.

This reviewer had just two concerns with this nonfiction account.   Although most of the story is told in layman’s terms, there are times when the language will be difficult for a typical reader to follow:  “It is clear no witness exists who could have proven Petitioner’s innocence as he claimed.   The testimony failed to raise credible evidence of Petitioner’s innocence by a preponderance of the evidence.”   Yes, this is language from a court document, an order, but it would have been well to translate it into simpler terms.

Graham also fails to ascribe the best of motives to the actions of prosecutors and others in this account.   Prosecutors must act on the information gathered and provided to them by law enforcement and/or their own investigators.   In general, they are very talented and skilled individuals who do not work to get rich.   (Graham, by his own admission, did not know how to draft motions when he became involved in the Rocha case.)   It may have been beneficial to have included an addendum giving the assigned prosecutors a chance to express their views and perspectives on this case.

Mario Rocha today is an undergraduate at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.   Ian Graham is experiencing a different kind of freedom, speaking at law schools and to public defenders.   He no longer makes a six-figure salary, but he is unshackled enough to “see a world and a life beyond the confines” of a large corporate law firm.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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