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by Sydney Bauer
Berkley, July 2008
448 pages
ISBN: 042522290X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In the prologue to UNDERTOW, Judge Isaac Stein warns lawyer David Cavanaugh that David would do well to be wary if he chooses to defend the woman whom Senator Rudolf Haynes is accusing of murdering his daughter.

Three days preceding the warning, Christina Haynes surprises her best friend, Teesha Martin (and Teesha's mother, Rayna) by showing up for Teesha's seventeenth birthday celebration. Rayna, a lawyer, is uneasy because the outboard motor boat she has hired for the treat can officially only accommodate three. Christina had previously declined the invitation because her mother insisted she come on a shopping expedition to buy a dress to wear to a dinner celebrating her father's fifty years in politics. She has, however, defied her parents and happily climbs aboard the boat.

When the girls are safely out of Rayna‛s sight, one of their number produces a bottle of Mot, which the quartet sets about demolishing. Not long thereafter, their outboard capsizes, one of the girls appears to be in trouble, and Christina swims back to Rayna to ask her help rescuing them. Rayna wants to haul Christina on board but the girl declines, saying Rayna should first rescue the others as she, Christina, is a strong swimmer and the others are in more immediate danger.

Rayna successfully rescues the three girls but when they go back to pick up Christina, they are horrified to find she has drowned and all efforts to revive her are fruitless: Christina is dead.

In an horrific series of events, Rayna, a black woman, is committed for trial on a homicide charge. The reason given for the serious charge is that Rayna was motivated by black rage when she rescued the three black girls in preference to the white one and thus committed a hate crime. David Cavanaugh and an associate in Rayna‛s legal firm, Sara Davis, are engaged in the defence in opposition to District Attorney Loretta Scaturro together with her rather nasty ADA, Roger Katz, who is very anxious to cooperate with the politically powerful father of the dead girl, seeing his own career prospects inextricably linked with his ability to win the case against Martin.

This debut novel is an excellently written courtroom drama on a par with anything written by more seasoned authors. Bauer has ably demonstrated an ability to create both believable characters and credible menaces.

Perhaps it is because of my own lack of familiarity with American society that I experienced some shakiness in my suspension of disbelief with regard the possible motive for the central crime. Is racial prejudice so blatant in the US that a hate crime based on discrimination could be considered credible? Pushing that thought to the back of my mind, I read the unfolding narrative with increasing absorption.

The author's acknowledgments bear testimony to the amount of research that went into the book. The final product is so polished (barring the occasional technical error) that one could assume far more seasoned writers would be glad to have it in their list of works.

Since the (Australian) author did such a tremendous job of a tale set in Boston, would it be too much to hope that one day she might set a future narrative in Australia?

Reviewed by Denise Pickles, August 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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