Falls the Shadow

by William Lashner

Published by William Morrow

432 pages, 2005


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To Victor Go the Spoils

Reviewed by Yvette Banek

 

Speaking (or, rather, writing) as one for whom legal thrillers were specifically not invented, I must confess that Falls the Shadow, the fifth installment (after 2004's Past Due) of William Lashner's series featuring Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Victor Carl, knocked my bias for a loop. The author's flinty way with words, faintly reminiscent of Dylan Schaffer's wise-cracking, throwaway style (though Lashner has been at the writing game for far longer) makes this current Carl outing a total literary delight. Actually, "delight" might leave one with the impression that this novel is light and fluffy, which it is not. Far from it.

Originally introduced in Lashner's 1996 debut novel, Hostile Witness, as a down-and-out lawyer who couldn't get into a top law school or find a position with a white-shoe firm, Victor Carl remains an intelligent, shifty-eyed, cynically inclined but somehow still remarkably likable figure. In Shadow, he's embroiled in a nasty conundrum involving lurid sex (with the requisite photos), murder and child abuse. Doing his best to get by in a world corrupted by greed and lust, armed with a selfish nature and the occasional sardonic quip, Carl is, despite all the evidence, a man of many shadings.

This new book finds Carl and his partner, the notably sanguine Beth Derringer, a young woman seriously afflicted with peering-at-the-world-through-rose-colored-glasses syndrome, hired to win an appeals court trial for François Dubé, a charming but cringingly insincere French chef, who was convicted three years ago of the grisly murder of his beautiful wife, Leesa. At that time, the Dubés were right in the heart of an acrimonious divorce and child-custody battle. Upon meeting his new client for the first time, Carl tells us: "François Dubé looked like the scruffy college professor all the girls fall in love with in their sophomore year. Maybe that's why I was wary, because he was better looking than me." Yet Carl, for all his delightfully jaundiced opinions, isn't one to let a client's handsomeness deter him from defending the man -- especially when said customer is waving a retainer in his face.

Only after their initial meeting with the crafty cuisinier does Beth irritate her partner by mentioning Dubé's surface appeal:

"I thought he was cute."

"Who?"

"François."

"Everyone looks cute in prison maroon."

"You didn't think he was insanely handsome?"

"In a Charlie Manson sort of way."

"There was something in his eyes."

"The mark of Satan?"

Beth's initial attraction to Dubé is soon compounded by her determination that he is innocent of murdering his spouse. Meanwhile, Carl seems convinced of the chef's guilt, and he's wary of how a second trial might reveal some nasty secrets best left hidden. It's Victor's job, though -- no matter his personal doubts -- to do the best for his client. In Shadow, that involves trying to punch holes in the prosecution's case, using doubts about the credibility of Seamus Dent, a chief witness against Dubé in his first trial.

As Carl prepares for his appeals presentation, Beth convinces him to offer pro bono assistance to 4-year-old Daniel Rose, a troubled boy from a suspiciously odd household, who's become mired in the social-services shuffle. In the course of that effort, Carl encounters Horace T. Grant, a bad-tempered old black man who's been hanging around the courthouse, and who seems to have made it his job to berate the bemused Victor and point the attorney down a certain righteous path. As Carl comments when the two men go out for coffee one day:

"Now this is strange, but absolutely true. I looked up irascible in the dictionary and found a picture of Horace T. Grant in his porkpie hat."

"You call this coffee? This isn't coffee. I've had ground donkey bladder tasted better than this."

"Maybe you need a little more sugar."

"Sugar's not going to help this, fool. You ever put sugar on a load of crap?"

"No."

"Well, let me tell you, it doesn't turn it into cake. That's experience, boy, hard won. Now, you might get me one of those muffins if the thought strikes, though I bet it's a rare occasion when a thought strikes your sad excuse for a brain ..."

"Do you want the donkey bladder muffin or the horse-shit muffin?"

"Blueberry. And if they don't got blueberry, cranberry. And if they don't got cranberry, then the hell with them, they don't deserve my business."

"Your business?"

"Get a move on, boy. I don't got all day."

"Yes, sir."

"And another cup of coffee while you're at it."

Why does Carl subject himself to the unsubtle slings and arrows of Horace T. Grant? Because, in this tale, he has no choice: Horace inserts himself into the mysterious goings-on and then hangs on for dear life. Characters have a habit of doing that in Lashner's world.

Which reminds me to mention Dr. Bob, the star of this story's third plot line.

How could I forget him?

Increasingly bothered by a toothache, as the other events in this yarn progress, Carl finally takes the advice of François Dubé's erstwhile attorney, Whitney Robinson III, and makes an appointment with Dr. Robert Pfeffer -- "Dr. Bob" to his faithful dental patients. It seems like an excellent recommendation; I mean, if you can't trust a Philadelphia Main Line aristocrat like Robinson, who can you trust? But Dr. Bob turns out to be the creepiest Good Samaritan you're ever likely to meet. Dental specialist, enthusiastic righter of wrongs and doer of good deeds, he's a mysterious man who quickly develops an octopus-like reach into the murkier corners of Victor's life. "This is why I became a dentist," Bob tells our hero. "To be able to aid patients in need, to stop their suffering, to make their lives just a little bit better. I want you to know this, Victor, I need you to know this. All I ask for in the world is a chance to help."

And help, he does. Even Carl's previously lackluster love life soon benefits from Dr. Bob's assiduous ministrations, when Carol Kingsley, another of the dentist's patients, unexpectedly takes an amorous interest in the struggling attorney. Victor doesn't immediately chafe under the dentist's peculiar beneficence. Why should he? His teeth have never looked better, he's getting laid with regularity and, sartorially speaking, he is definitely dressing with more aplomb. What else could a guy want?

But in short order, unexpected developments make it clear to Victor that Dr. Bob's reach is more ominous than he'd originally thought. What, for instance, is the connection between this dentist and the late Leesa Dubé? Analyzing some of the dentist's comments and making the necessary leaps in logic, Victor finds himself voyaging into the past -- and moving several steps nearer to solving this convoluted but grimly entertaining case.

I don't really know what I expected when I began reading this novel, but whatever it was, William Lashner's gleeful affection for his main characters -- especially the unceremoniously immoral Victor Carl -- coupled with his obvious talent as a writer, quickly disabused me of the notion that this was going to be just another Grisham-like legal thriller. When all is said and done, after the deceptions have been deciphered and the guilty parties revealed (if not always made to pay for their crimes), the thing that is frequently missing from today's legal thrillers is humor. After all, if we can't laugh at the absurdities of America's legal system, what can we laugh at?

In Falls the Shadow, Lashner fills that gap. Delightfully. | May 2005

 

Yvette Banek is a New Jersey artist-writer who reviews crime fiction for both January Magazine and Mystery Ink.