Title
A criminal defense
Author
William L. Myers Jr.
Genre
Legal thriller
Price
$10.82

A criminal defense

4 June 2017

Title
A criminal defense
Author
William L. Myers Jr.
Genre
Legal thriller
Price
$10.82

An unusual court­room thriller that breaks the mould and leaves you with trou­bling moral ques­tions.

Every so often one comes across an under-appre­ci­ated book that left them deeply sat­is­fied, yet full of ques­tions, at the end. For me, A crim­i­nal defense, by William L. Myers Jr., is one such. Just before I went on my recent vaca­tion I was on the fence as to which book to carry with me to read and I finally decided on fic­tion (I like to let my mind wander when I am on a hol­i­day) and my Kindle Voyage sug­gested that I give said book a try.

Mild spoil­ers follow. How­ever, they are details that do more to urge you to read this book than blindly give away plot points. In fact, no plot points are directly given out; there are com­ments on char­ac­ters and gen­eral, unspe­cific com­ments on the plot itself. 

I was some­what scep­ti­cal from the start for rea­sons I cannot lay a finger on but I was hap­pily proved wrong. That it was an unknown author was not of con­cern to me because fame does not imply good writ­ing. And it was the blurb that caught my eye—

When a young reporter is found dead and a promi­nent Philadel­phia busi­ness­man is accused of her murder, Mick McFar­land finds him­self involved in the case of his life… Mick’s only way out is to mas­ter­mind the most bril­liant defense he’s ever spun, one that will cross every legal and moral bound­ary.

I should, per­haps, also add that the accused is found clean­ing the crime scene
1

. To anyone who likes court­room dramas: this book should be on your read­ing list.

Nar­ra­tives and drama

The first person nar­ra­tive seemed obstruc­tive at first, but it makes sense towards the end. I think the final chap­ters of the novel would not have been as effec­tive had they been writ­ten in the third person. I did take some time to get used to the first person nar­ra­tive, which is not all that common in my expe­ri­ence, but it was not a hin­der­ance to the way the story devel­oped.

The actual court­room scenes do not take place until about halfway through the book, beyond which it is almost entirely set in the dis­trict court. The first half may seem to be long drawn to some. There is also the curi­ous choice of making the first half of the book heavy in reported speech which almost entirely becomes normal’ direct speech as the book pro­gresses. Indeed I think it was pulled just a little more than it needed to be. There are so many nar­ra­tive detours into Mick McFarland’s past that, at one point, I remem­ber think­ing this book was a char­ac­ter study. Most of these detours, though, did turn out to be some­what jus­ti­fied, although not all of them were 
2

.

How­ever, the second half of the book alone is worth it. Mr Myers becomes notice­ably com­fort­able describ­ing drama in the court­room
3

. Most of the dia­logue-rich scenes are, from what I hear from other lawyers, extremely accu­rate. The court­room pace is break­neck; I par­tic­u­larly remem­ber that the noon adjourn­ment of the court is, at one point, men­tioned matter-of-factly in just one sen­tence, on whose two sides are nar­ra­tives about the morn­ing and after­noon argu­ments.

The one thing I dis­like about some legal thrillers is how, on find­ing evi­dence prov­ing a victim’s inno­cence, the actual clos­ing argu­ments and ver­dict (or other out­come) are glossed over. There is com­ple­tion in this book, which is great. And it has some nice flair to it, which is great too. But, at the end of it, I felt that the bril­liant defence’ strat­egy men­tioned in the blurb was employed as much, if not more, out­side the court­room as inside it. Also excel­lent are explo­rations of the emo­tions of char­ac­ters, and, given the first person nar­ra­tive, the emo­tions of Mick McFar­land are that much more effec­tively con­veyed.

A moral dilemma

What I did not expect was the moral issues the book raises. That the so-called hero’ pro­tag­o­nist wins is almost like a rule in writ­ing any story. But there are sev­eral books where the vil­lains win too, arguably the most famous of them being Amer­i­can Psycho and The God­fa­ther. But A crim­i­nal defense is not so straight­for­ward. There is a blend of sev­eral issues towards the end that, in a fash­ion per­haps more true to real life than most novels, offers a con­clu­sion but leaves you won­der­ing if every­thing really turned out fine after all.

It is some­what a cross between a straight win for the vil­lains (who are not the people you might think they are at the start of the book) and some­thing along the lines of Kafka’s Meta­mor­pho­sis (minus the fly). There are pit­falls and ben­e­fits and gains and losses for people that come at the cost of others’ lives. There are events that leave you think­ing if things should have turned out dif­fer­ently.

There are two other points I wish this book addressed better. Firstly, there is a cer­tain par­al­lel nar­ra­tive to the reporter’s murder that, I feel, should have been given more weight. It serves a pur­pose in the story, but a weak one only indi­rectly linked to the murder, much to the ben­e­fit of the pro­tag­o­nist
4

. Sec­ondly, there is an impor­tant sequences of events in the book wherein a rich family with a cal­cu­lat­ing mind­set attempts to shape the opin­ion of the court (jurors) and the public by manip­u­lat­ing a media outlet. I wished this would be seen as an oppor­tu­nity to make a state­ment against such misuse of wealth and about how the court system was immune to such cor­rup­tion. How­ever, not only does the court appear to be moved by these antics but the issue itself is also cast aside with no strong con­clu­sion.

The other trou­ble I have is that the judge seemed to lean towards the defence right from the start of the book, which is the legal thriller ana­logue of having every­thing in a story go the protagonist’s way. Of course, the judge was fair, but I think, had the judge been less obvi­ously favourable to the defence through­out the book, the court scenes would have posed a bigger obsta­cle and would have been much more excit­ing. In any case, I do not argue with actual lawyers who say the legal side of this book was accu­rate. Per­haps I have read one too many thrillers.

The book is writ­ten pretty well and is one that I would def­i­nitely rec­om­mend to others. What­ever sup­port and oppo­si­tion I may have about this book, there is no doubt that it is an excit­ing story that keeps you think­ing and, when it finally deliv­ers, does an absolutely bril­liant job.

  1. Before some­one argues that this is a spoiler, it really is not. It is what prompted me to read this book and I think it deserves a men­tion in the blurb.

  2. I par­tic­u­larly do not like such things in thriller fic­tion since they break the pace of the cur­rent story, but that could just be me. But then I have seen better: there are books, like sev­eral of John LeCarré’s, where past and present nar­ra­tives flow so beau­ti­fully that the pace of the story remains intact.

  3. This is unsur­pris­ing, since the author is a lawyer him­self.

  4. Any­thing that hap­pens to the ben­e­fit of the pro­tag­o­nist makes the story that much less inter­est­ing.