by Robert Reuland

Published by Random House

242 pages, 2004

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The Blinded Eye of Justice

Reviewed by Anthony Rainone


Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Andrew Francis Giobberti makes his sophomore appearance in Robert Reuland's newest courtroom procedural, Semiautomatic. Following on the polished heels of his critically successful first novel, Hollowpoint (2001), Reuland delivers another must-read this summer, further solidifying his reputation as one of the few realistic voices in legal crime fiction. Compared with Reuland's nitty-gritty observations about courthouse quirks (such as corridor windows "screw-driven shut to keep despairing prisoners" from "leaping to their deaths") and the folks who keep all that legal machinery running -- including a judge who makes personal phone calls while presiding, a defense lawyer who pours over his bills to kill time and file clerks whose ankle guns peek out from their pant cuffs -- most other legal dramas seem pre-school in their authenticity and scope. Reuland is a former Brooklyn ADA himself, and if the backroom politics and legal dealings in Semiautomatic are even semi-factual -- and there's no reason to believe they are not -- then the fine line between those assigned to enforce the law and others who break it is shaved closer than comfort should allow.

As this novel opens, the 40-year-old Giobberti is grappling with both personal and professional trials. Still reeling from the death of his daughter, Opal, as well as his separation from wife Amanda, Giobberti has been removed from the Homicide Bureau. After having released a woman who then went out and murdered a child (see Hollowpoint), Giobberti's boss, DA Whitey Fister, has transferred him to Appeals, where he now spends uneventful days in legal purgatory.

Appeals! This ninth-floor backwater bureau where you never see a jury, never see a defendant, never see a judge. Where no one shouts, no one sweats. Where the men wear glasses and women long skirts, their nyloned thighs hissing as they pace the quiet library stacks. Here you can shut your door and hunch over your computer and type and smoke 'em if you got 'em and leave at five on the nose without seeing anybody all day. Or, more important, without letting a killer go free. Which is how you got here.

But then Giobberti is visited by a Fister underling, chief ADA Phil Block, who offers him a way back into the Homicide brotherhood: he must take over the prosecution of a street thug named Haskin Pool. Pool has been charged with killing a bodega owner named Habib al-Hamadi, and though the case is already being handled by junior ADA Laurel Ashfield, she is not trusted ("She does not belong here, not here in Brooklyn, not here in Homicide ...," Giobberti reflects early on). Giobberti knows that there's "something wrong" with this case ("Block did not give me everything; he is holding something back, either because he does not want me to know what's wrong with Haskin Pool or because he does not know himself"). However, no one in the DA's office seems willing, or able, to confirm Giobberti's suspicions. While Reuland's story line takes a tad long to develop (especially as the novel extends to only 242 pages), Semiautomatic has modest plot ambitions and it does not take long for the reader to be charmed by this author's refined writing.

The slow-growing relationship between the seasoned and cynical Giobberti and Ashfield, an earnest newbie in her early 30s, provides a palpable dynamic that resonates with repressed sexual sizzle. Ashfield resents having lost the lead prosecutor's chair to Giobberti, and initially she offers him only scant professional help. She is indignant of the elder attorney's "moral ambiguity" and resists letting him past her uptight façade of shiny shoes, sharpened pencils and legal decorum. For his part, Giobberti has little use either for Ashfield's propriety, behind which he sees a lack of killer instinct, or her injured pride ("I have a homicide, and I'm going to try it," he tells her. "And you're going to stand up. Like it or not, you're going to stand up"). These are two wounded souls with their respective pains fresh on the surface. Though their moral beliefs and legal instincts play like a point-counterpoint throughout the novel, each inevitably draws the other to his/her perspective.

Meanwhile, there's Haskin Pool, implicated in the murder of al-Hamadi by Dellroy Dunn, a mentally challenged young man ("Seventeen going on eleven, you know what I mean?"), who worked in al-Hamadi's bodega. Giobberti knows that Dunn's credibility will make or break his case, but getting the teenager to testify proves difficult -- his protector, Santra Flowers, forbids it. Dunn inhabits the same ghetto neighborhood as Pool and knows him well. However, their association takes on a more sinister coloring when Giobberti discovers that Dunn was not only a witness to murder, but an active participant. Knowing that accomplices cannot, by law, testify against one another, Dunn is leaned on heavily by cop Bill Heatly, the lead arresting detective in this case, who finally coaxes the simple Dunn to give testimony as a witness -- not an associate in murder -- in a setup of Pool. Pool is clearly not an innocent character. "I wanted him for capers he was pulling in my neighborhood," Heatly admits at one point. Besides putting the fatal slugs into al-Hamadi, Pool is guilty of killing at least one other man. When he's informed by his attorney, Martin Yost, that Dellroy Dunn is going to testify against him, Pool expresses the outrage not of a morally wronged man, but of a smug killer who's been done one better by the police and district attorney's office. Not even Pool's collection of female relatives threatening Giobberti with voodoo revenge can help him.

Giobberti's discovery that Pool has been set up is supposed to come as a shocking moment, but Reuland has already made abundantly clear the arrogance that pervades the Brooklyn DA's office, and the acceptability of prefabricated justice meted out by Fister's "number-one boy," ADA Mark Luther. As a result, the "revelation" of that set-up comes off as ho-hum. The greater danger is represented by Luther, the dark angel of the Homicide Bureau with "a practiced smile," who is rightly despised by Giobberti.

Letch Luther, we called him then, among other things. That was before he became political, back when he was a toad like the rest of us, sharing an office with five other toads. We were so new, with our white shirts and ties, we knew nothing. Yet even then you could tell Luther had ideas about Luther. Already he was bestowing his dubious favors and backslaps on anyone who could get him off the front lines, anyone who could get him upstairs.

Luther defends his deeds -- creditable and questionable, both -- by pointing out that he's successfully getting some truly bad guys off the streets of Brooklyn, New York City's most populous borough ("It's the job. It's putting people like this little criminal in jail"). And to be fair, he is doing that. But one can't help wondering how often he has manipulated facts to make the criminal fit the crime. When Luther tries to cloak his actions against Pool in far grander terms, his sliminess oozes to the surface:

"It's political," Luther says. "You don't understand."

"It's political," I say, and I say it seriously, very seriously, as Luther tried and failed to do just now: to make it all sound like the work of deep and dangerous men. Men who bend the rules because it had to be done -- in the interest of -- blah, blah, blah.

"There's more going on than you know," he says in the same tone.

"Give me a fucking break."

"Giobberti, you -- "

"You schmuck. This isn't -- a John Grisham novel. This is just Fister and you. That's all this is."

Giobberti's surprise at the lengths to which Luther will go in putting Haskin Pool away seems naïve, considering that he's supposed to be a veteran prosecutor in a department known for its questionable behavior. What is more concerning here is Laurel Ashfield's forced participation in Luther's scheme, which she doesn't fight only because she assumes that Giobberti is likewise in on the scam ("How is it possible you don't know?"). The "shit" that has to be handled daily in the Brooklyn DA's office seems to have finally landed in Ms. Ashfield's pristine lap. This may be the saddest result of the whole conspiracy.

Semiautomatic is a novel of awakening -- not only on the part of the reader, who's given an eye-opening discourse (by a former prosecutor) on how justice really works in 21st-century America, but also on the parts of Giobberti and Ashfield, who come to realize the sacrifices that the DA's Homicide Bureau will continue to demand of them. Both assistant district attorneys eventually recognize that the most valuable lessons they learned came from each other, and their transformations make the Homicide Bureau expendable.

Robert Reuland gives us in these pages a consuming portrait of individual and shared struggle, using an economy of words and action, with the full force of his narrative judiciously devoted to character. Semiautomatic's setting, too, is richly depicted, with the Brooklyn-residing author adding flesh and credence to a borough that is too often thought of merely in terms of bravura and degradation. That Lady Justice is served in the end hardly matters, for that isn't the sole purpose of this story. There's a saying in the Brooklyn Homicide Bureau that if defendants get off, it's not a problem because "they'll be back." This reader will be waiting impatiently for Andrew Giobberti to come back, in his next incarnation. | August 2004


Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine.