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Legal Thrillers

Eye of the Beholder, David Ellis, Berkley, $7.99.

Eye of the Beholder by David Ellis

All things being equal, David Ellis should be a giant bestselling author. His only problem may be that he's too smart, and his books are evidence of his intelligence. His most recent book, In the Company of Liars, was one of the most tightly plotted thrillers I've ever read, and it was a story told completely backwards - a story told so well, that on finishing it, it made me want to flip back to the first page and start it all over. Other readers have told me the same thing, and I'm always happy to handsell an Ellis title to someone looking for a good legal thriller, though Ellis has gone beyond writing legal thrillers - he just writes cracking good thrillers, which often happen to feature lawyers.

His latest installment, Eye of the Beholder, does indeed feature a lawyer, one Paul Riley, an attorney who made his name convicting a killer of six college coeds on a deserted campus in 1989. Fast forward to the present, and Riley is starting to get some of the same creepy notes he was getting when he was prosecuting the case, and there are starting to be what look like either copycat crimes, or the crimes of someone who was really responsible the first time around. When Paul had attended the execution of the confessed killer, the killer had mouthed the words, "I'm not the only one", and the words are starting to feel to Paul like gospel truth.

The creepiness of the crimes are not underplayed by the usually merely suspenseful Ellis - they are genuinely horrifying, along the lines of a Jeffrey Deaver or Karin Slaughter book (though not quite as graphic). The girls were all killed in different, horrible ways; two of the victims were college co-eds and the other four were prostitutes. One of them, Cassie Bentley, was the daughter of a very wealthy college benefactor (think Paris Hilton scale and notoriety) and so got special treatment during the original investigation. The killer wasn't prosecuted for her death, mostly so that nothing unsavory would be revealed publically about Cassie herself. Because the case had been such a slam dunk in every other way, and because Paul had been such a very young prosecutor at the time, he had gone along with the strong suggestion of his superiors to run the case that way. Fifteen years later, Harland Bentley, Cassie's father, is Paul's biggest client. And now Paul isn't certain that his daughter's killer was actually ever found.

When circumstances begin to ratchet up and Paul looks to be set up not as an attorney but as a perpetrator, he begins to investigate on his own, something that leads him deep into the dynamics of Harland's family and further into the mind of another sociopath. One of my least favorite mystery tropes is when the main character is framed as a suspect - though of course it's a perfect plot device - but Ellis thankfully doesn't take it too far, and for me, that only increased the suspense of the story and my interest in the outcome. This smart thriller takes you places you weren't sure you were going in the beginning, and if it's a bit more violent than the usual Ellis fare, it's so well put together and paced that the sometime goriness of the plot isn't a deterrent but an accelerant. This is a terrific novel by a wonderful writer.

Oldies But Goodies: Gini Hartzmark

Out of print but check for used copies at our ABE store).

This will actually be a frustrating little essay for anyone who is intrigued by these titles, which are criminally out of print, though we occasionally have used copies around. Gini Hartzmark's first legal thriller, Principal Defense, won an Edgar for Best Paperback Original, and her subsequent novels (there are 6 total) were just as snappy, concise, suspenseful and intelligent as the first one. I've recently re-read three of them, Rough Trade, Final Option and Dead Certain (the last in the series). All of them feature deal making attorney Kate Milholland, and in each one the deal she is working on is shoved to the side so she can deal with another problem that usually is family or friend related, but the way Hartzmark weaves the families and friends into the storyline is always believable.

To me the most enjoyable book in the series is Rough Trade, where Kate has been working herself to the bone on a deal for some strip clubs (think a scummier version of "Hooters" and you get the idea), when she gets a call that her best friend from childhood is in a mess. Her husband's father owns the (fictional) pro football team in Milwaukee, and a deal to take the team out of town has stalled out because the stubborn father in law refuses to let his team go, despite the dire financial straights they find themselves in. Anyone who's ever read a mystery knows that the father is dead meat, but it's what Hartzmark does with the rest of the story that makes the book a standout.

Kate Milholland is an interesting character for several reasons - one of them is that her family is both incredibly wealthy and incredibly disappointed in her (or at least her very swanky mother is). Kate had the bad taste to fall in love with and marry the wrong guy who died six months later; widowed at a young age she throws herself into her career and allows herself a boyfriend, Steven Azorini, who is completely acceptable to her family but who is, for Kate, a convenience. Despite this she's bought a huge apartment on Chicago's Gold Coast with Steven and is spending time she doesn't have going over the decorating details with her mother. Meanwhile, she's dealing with her childhood friend's believable shock - and grief, as her husband is charged with his father's murder - back in Milwaukee, as she shuttles back and forth between the football deal, the stripper deal, and her mother's demands.

All the details in these books are just spot on, from the legal ones to the personal ones to, in the case of Rough Trade, the football ones. Final Option is a fascinating look at the business of futures trading (which I understand marginally more than I did when I started the book, it still seems somehow wrong to me) and the interior of a very dysfunctional family; Dead Certain is a close look at the inner workings of a hospital principally funded by Kate's own wealthy family and staffed by Kate's also overworked roommate, Dr. Claudia Stein, a trauma surgeon. Every book in this series is crisp and intelligent and it's really a shame they are out of print. If you ever see a used one, snatch it up without delay - you won't be sorry!



Gini Hartzmark bibliography:

  • Principal Defense (1992)
  • Final Option (1994)
  • A Bitter Business (1995)
  • Fatal Reaction (1998)
  • Rough Trade (1999)
  • Dead Certain (2000)

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