I Right the Wrongs

by Dylan Schaffer

Published by Bloomsbury USA

352 pages, 2005

Buy it online





Could It Be Tragic?

Reviewed by Yvette Banek


"A stolen dog and a bag of dope. What an idiotic waste of resources."

Gordon Seegerman, low-rent misdemeanor attorney and man about downtown Santa Rita, California, is once again up to his Adam's apple in troubles. Cue the background music. Some Barry Manilow, if you please. (Which explains the title of Dylan Schaffer's witty second novel. "I write the songs that make the whole world sing ..." etc. Get it?) And prepare yourself for more mystery and mischief, courtesy of the anxiety-prone Gordon and his legal eagle pals from the public defender's office -- three of whom share his greatest dream: to someday meet the exalted Barry and win approval to record that singer's tunes with their own hip little band, Barry X and the Mandys.

But, following on the pattern of last year's delightful series debut, Misdemeanor Man, life down at the Santa Rita legal aid office keeps getting in the way of all things musical. And crime will have its day.

As this sequel opens, Gordon is waiting in his doctor's office for a test that will determine the course of his entire future. (Otherwise, no pressure.) His father, retired ex-police detective Alan Seegerman, has been stricken with early onset familial Alzheimer's dementia, and Gordon might or might not be carrying the same gene. Unfortunately, there's a 50-50 chance that he shares his dad's fate. Gordon's elder brother, King, has been tested and come up clean. Up until now, Gordon has resisted the test. But, hey, a fellow's got to face down the hangman sometime.

That, or I'll let the appointment pass and go on not knowing [Gordon muses, as the nurse approaches.]

"You have the follow-up visit all set, right?"

I nod. She looks at me for a moment longer and then says, "Try not to drive yourself too crazy, Mr. Seegerman. You haven't quite made it through the rain, but, somehow, you'll survive."

The woman knows her Manilow.

With the grim possibility that he carries the Alzheimer's gene, Gordon plunges bravely on, only occasionally letting his hysteria show. As when, practically on the eve of a long-awaited performance before his idol in Las Vegas, Gordon is assigned to a legal case which initially seems easy enough, but will soon become more complicated. ("You know, sometimes optimism is just delusion with a smile," our hero is heard to comment.)

This litigation concerns 18-year-old Marcus Manners, California's leading public high-school quarterback (and a prospective Heisman Trophy winner), who's been arrested for dog-napping Red, a rival school's mascot, and possession of marijuana. The bit of weed has been found on the front seat of a Honda Civic that may or may not belong to Manners, by a suspiciously sharp-eyed cop. The private school in question is Saint Illuminatus, a Catholic enclave attended by society's rich darlings, who are not used to having their mascot threatened or their image sullied.

Needless to say, Gordon isn't pleased by his situation. With the Manilow appearance upcoming, the last thing he wants is a high-profile court fight on his plate.

I take as few cases to trial as humanly possible. I avoid promotion -- to the felony division, to the serious cases -- as I might the Ebola virus. What ambition I have I save for my music, for my commitment to Manilow. What energy I have I exhaust, mostly, handling my dad, who, perhaps simply to irritate me, ten years ago developed a rare form of Alzheimer's. Imagine a toddler after a few shots of Jack Daniels -- that about describes my father.

My job is my job. I lay low. I try not to attract too much attention. Every two weeks I'm pleasantly surprised to find that the city has deposited a sum of money in my bank account. I can't say I believe the money is earned, but I'm not inclined to return it.

But as the saying goes, "some days you bite the dog, and some days the dog takes a big bloody chunk out of your ass" -- or words to that effect. Gordon is definitely experiencing some dog-bitten days of late. As if the Manners case weren't distraction enough, he's also having to audition singers to temporarily replace Maeve O'Connell, the tyrannical manager of the public defender's office (officially, a "lez-bean," yet somehow, enormously pregnant), who, with Preet Singh and Terry Fretwater, comprise the Mandys. And as the Manners situation takes on a life of its own, Gordon, as usual, is caught in the middle of the unholy mess.

A mess, it must be pointed out, that is fraught with racial overtones (since quarterback Marcus Manners is African American) and has grabbed the unwanted attention of city councilman Jeremiah Pluck, a current mayoral candidate, the father of Marcus' girlfriend, Lucy, and "a man whose day begins happily only when his photograph appears in the paper." With the names Rodney King and O.J. Simpson being bandied about city hall, Gordon's bosses want action, and they want it now.

But what started out as a routine bust, soon becomes anything but. First, the case is assigned to a judge who also happens to be a crazed Saint Illuminatus alumnus (class of 1940), with a serious grudge against a certain assistant public defender named Gordon Seegerman. Then, the murdered body of Ella Swell, ex-wife of professor Jackson Bulley, who owns the aforementioned stolen mascot, Red, turns up on her family's former Santa Rita estate. To Gordon's surprise and understandable dismay, Manners is quickly implicated in this slaying. As a cop on the scene explains to Gordon:

"We have your guy on the property last week. To snatch the dog. Maybe to deliver a package. We found some coke near Swell's body."

"That's ridiculous. How do you go from personal use amounts of dope to coke dealing? And even if he's dealing, that automatically makes him a suspect in a homicide?"

"That, and the fact that he had a motive, puts him on the short list." He takes a step back and smiles ...

"What motive?"

"How about she killed his mother?"

And so it goes. Before Gordon even has time to sing another note, buried secrets are revealed, and he's drawn into an ugly, years-old Santa Rita crime that has spread its tentacles into the present. Yet, throughout all this turmoil, his reluctant-to-cooperate young client seems strangely unfazed. What is a lawyer to do but hurry up and solve the case? Especially when he'd rather chuck it all and devote his time to something really important, like Manilow's music. And, oh no, is Maeve experiencing labor pains? And what about the results of that dreaded Alzheimer's test?

For a second time, the gifted Dylan Schaffer, an appellate lawyer in Oakland, California (which he has fictionalized here into "Santa Rita"), offers his readers a decidedly wry and frequently caustic look at the grinding wheels of a legal system run amok. Although Wrongs' sometimes laborious plot could use a bit more clarification here and there, the author's affection for his main character makes minor sins forgivable. Schaffer has created a likable, foible-rich protagonist who, despite himself, remains the hero of his own life. And if this "misdemeanor man's" dilemmas are often funny and even borderline bizarre, it is the frenzied pathos with which Schaffer treats him that makes Gordon Seegerman all too human. Here's a guy most of us would love to have as a son, or maybe a brother. Even if we might sometimes want to twist his head off.

Hey, just kidding, Gordo. | June 2005


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