In the first of a projected series from a welcome addition to the ranks of lawyer novelists, Leo Maxwell has recently passed the California bar exam without noticeable acclaim from his dominant older brother Teddy, one of San Francisco’s most successful and colorful (not to mention hated) criminal defense attorneys. Called by the childhood nickname of Monkey Boy, Leo is limited to uncomplicated tasks and has not been invited to join the firm started by Teddy and his ex-wife. Everything changes when Teddy, shot by an unknown assailant in a restaurant, falls into a coma and is deemed unlikely to recover. Leo’s initial encounter with an incredibly insensitive police detective illustrates the contempt in which criminal lawyers, especially those whose ethics are suspect, are often held by law enforcement. Unsure whether his brother will survive, and if so with what mental capacity, Leo decides to find the shooter while taking care of the legal practice, including delivering the closing argument in Teddy’s current trial. The Maxwell brothers’ father is in prison for the murder of their mother, a case that becomes one element in a very complicated plot.
Despite the dramatic opening, the novel takes a while to gather momentum, but the solid first-person writing, well-managed scenes, and sense of down-and-dirty legal reality draw the reader in. Leo reveals a cynical view of the justice system, telling one prospective client, “Let the [public defender] plead you out. They end up getting the best deals anyway. It’s called a volume discount.” When the court clerk calls a case, “It was all as ritualized as a church service where the officiants have long since forgotten the meaning of the prayers.”
The novel is somewhat overplotted, and the whodunit denouement seems almost anticlimactic. But the limited use of contrived action scenes, the admirable if unfashionable decision not to go back and forth between first and third person, the noirish notes in the situations and characters, and the dysfunctional family dynamics give promise for future entries. For all the courthouse background, readers are more likely to be reminded of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep than anything from the legal mystery pantheon.