Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Steve Cavanagh writes with the assurance of an author fully comfortable in the crime-courtroom genre. His style is relaxed and the tone consistent with a man simply going about his business. His characters commit the most appalling of crimes under the protective umbrella of the criminal justice system. The District Attorney takes pride in the fact that his county executes more people than any other. That some killed by the system were undoubtedly innocent of the crime for which they were convicted is explained away as they were assuredly guilty of some other, as yet, undetected transgression against the law.
The story is not a police procedural, nor is it a mystery centering around a crime to be solved. Police interest is low as an offender has been apprehended and charged. His day in court, before a judge who has already decided on a verdict, has been set. The only decision to be made is the date of execution. The reader is left in no doubt about the horror of death by electrocution as the opening chapter spells this out in graphic detail. The same chapter gives an insight into the rabid cruelty of District Attorney Korn.
What is unusual, and disconcerting to the reader, is the revelation of the identity of the real killer early in the story. All this achieves is a reader who feels shortchanged. It is as though the air has gone out of the balloon and only a collapsed husk remains. The reader’s attention is diverted to what is happening in the courtroom, where pickings are remarkably slim. A judge, DA, sheriff and a police force all dishonest and of murderous intent, supported by a jury of locals who have decided the plaintiff is guilty, oppose a small band of lawyers, interlopers from the big city, who cannot obtain so much as a meal in the town…the outcome of the trial is obvious. Justice is on the side of good, surely. No matter how big the guns of the opposition, books of this description always see the maligned defendant assured of release.
Counsel for the defence is the famous Eddie Flynn. His efforts are more noticeable in the promise than in the observance (to mangle Shakespeare without conscience). Eddie has a ‘big’ reputation as a lawyer. He leads the trial defence with the help of a few tricks, carries with him the tacit support of the FBI, and does not realise that a much more interesting character is his investigator, Bloch. Eddie describes her as “just about the most resourceful PI I’d ever met. Bloch and [assistant lawyer] Kate were childhood friends and it sure helped melt the ice on Bloch’s tongue. She didn’t talk much. Mostly she talked to Kate. That didn’t mean she was unfriendly – she spoke when she had something to say and it paid to listen” (19).
That short passage is filled with information about Bloch. Observing her actions and speech patterns as the book unfolds its story reveals a woman that adheres to this description formulated by the author before the tale begins. She possesses a frosty tongue, she has little time for men generally but doesn’t let that get in the way of her duties, the comfortable womanliness of Kate is missing from Bloch, yet she retains likeability and our regard. She is a more complex character than any other.
As a whole, the book is a pleasant read that repays the time the reader devotes to it. Why the Alabama Attorney-General had not noticed what was really going on under Korn’s watch is a mystery. I suspect the reason why the FBI took no action is given in the book but is too weak to be given serious consideration. But, let’s not condemn a story that is a pleasure to read in leisured moments and is, at least equal in entertainment value, to stories already flooding the market.
by Steve Cavanagh
$32.99; 416 pp