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I recall a Dave Barry column a few years back that cited the "Grisham Rule" on airplanes; it was something like "every third person must be reading a Grisham novel". I started joking that if only every publisher would use marbleized covers with gold lettering on their books, writers I knew would make a million because everyone would think they were another Grisham. Look at Lisa Scottoline whose popularity skyrocketed when she was called "the female John Grisham".
I don't like Grisham's work. Within five minutes of finishing two different books that he wrote, I could not remember what I had read. I do however like legal thrillers and courtroom dramas. My measurement of quality is Scott Turow -- not all of his but some of his books are "cherce". You want good lawyers in mysteries? Check Lia Matera or Carolyn Wheat, Joe Hensley or Michael Nava. While I suspect the fictional courtroom events resemble real courtrooms much the way police dramas on television resemble real police work, legal thrillers still work because they are insights into the system, because they are fast paced and because they are great opportunities for taut dialogue and surprises.
J.F. Freedman is new to me. The premise of Above The Law is a very challenging one. Anyone who reads police procedurals or legal mysteries is aware of the turf battles and conflicts between local law enforcement and other bodies -- sheriffs and police, DEA and FBI and ATF for starters. In this novel, a huge drug bust put together by dozens of federal agents has gone terribly wrong. Not only were there no drugs on the premises, but the major player, who was arrested, got away and was then shot and killed. And no one knows who shot him; it's a black eye for everyone. The fed in charge, Sterling Jerome, refused help from the local guys, including a former FBI agent, and Jerome makes what might be some bad calls.
The district attorney in the area --Muir County, a remote part of Northern California -- calls on her old friend Luke Garrison to help investigate the mess. The FBI could not resolve the problem, so it's time for an outsider. Garrison, a prosecutor turned defense attorney in Santa Barbara, initially travels to consult with his old law school colleague, Nora Ray, but turns down her request to head the investigation. As you can guess, eventually he gives in and starts turning over rocks. No one knows who is under those rocks; informants, local guys, feds.
Freedman writes very well, although there are times that I want to reach for the blue pencil. There are a lot of scenes in this book that are truly pointless; conversations between a couple of Garrison's assistants which do nothing to advance the plot. The story is enough -- there are a lot of bad guys in this situation and a lot of clues, so the filler in the 400+ page book is hardly necessary.
The reason this book is not as close to the "Turow" end of my scale of excellence and tends a bit down toward the "Grisham" scale is that there is, throughout this book, a false note. Without giving anything away, I will say only that one character behaves in a very peculiar manner, considering what the character is trying to accomplish. The longer the story went on, the more impatient I got. It simply did not ring true. And when almost everyone and every activity in a legal thriller contributes to the resolution and outcome, it's difficult to ignore the false note.
The other hesitation I had was that the first sixty pages of Above the Law are taken up with a suspenseful and fascinating hostage situation that has no bearing on the story. At issue throughout the book is that Garrison, a well known and talented lawyer hates dirty cops -- and it's obviously a factor to be considered in this investigation. Well, big surprise! Everyone hates dirty cops -- police hate dirty cops, lawyers hate dirty cops, you and I hate dirty cops. No additional incentive or story line is needed.
Okay, enough already. This book is, in the vernacular "a good read". Freedman is quite good at characterization although, as noted, there are some elements with which I was not comfortable. There is a lot going on in this mystery; autonomy and reservation land, drug money and questions of allegiance. Luke Garrison has a lot to deal with in the investigation and as the story goes on, the lines start to blur. I just tend to be leery when there is a false note in a story because I know that note will sound eventually. I don't like being warned too early, and I hate guessing whodunit. I don't like knowing that there is A Major Clue coming. I suspect that, as usual, I'm being overly picky and most people who read Above the Law won't have these criticisms. It's definitely worth reading, but I'm still keeping Scott Turow at the top of my list.
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Reviewed by Andi Shechter, August 2002
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