For-profit prisons lie at the center of this second legal thriller in a series featuring Los Angeles defense attorney Bobby Earl.
Rucker (The Inevitable Witness, 2017), a criminal defense lawyer who’s had some high-profile trials during his long career, introduced his fictional lawyer in his previous novel, which had a case involving a safecracker charged with killing a police officer. In his late 30s, Earl finds the high-stakes intensity of the courtroom to be addictive: “There was a hunger in him that only being a trial lawyer satisfied.” He aligns himself with the less-privileged in life, so 50-something Kate Carlson isn’t like his usual clients; she’s a partner in an LA law firm. She’s also a spokesperson for Proposition 53, a California ballot initiative that would take money from for-profit prisons to fund public schools. She’s been charged with murder for smuggling a gun and a map into Haywood State Prison to break out an inmate named Adam Hartman. The attempt was foiled, resulting in the death of Hartman and a guard, Travis Miller. Kate says that she was set up, and Earl is skeptical of her claim, but she presents him with a follow-the-money argument that might just be solid: Prop. 53 would take funding away from private prison corporations, from locals who depend on prison employment, and from the prison guards’ union, whose dues buy the political influence that keeps profits flowing—by, for example, passing longer sentencing laws. Still, proving a setup will be difficult, especially as his opponents play dirty and will stop at nothing to claim victory. That said, Earl is known for winning supposedly unwinnable cases.
The novel’s plot is enjoyably complex, referencing contemporary issues that go beyond schools and prisons: “The big money, the fuck you money, is in housing illegals for the feds,” says the corporate counsel for the company that runs Haywood. Also, federal oversight could expose abuses in private prisons—something that Hartman and Kate could have brought to light if the escape had been successful. The classic courtroom drama at the heart of this story is perfectly orchestrated, and the seemingly impossible odds make Earl’s masterful handling of evidence, witnesses, opposing counsel, the jury, and the judge wonderfully satisfying to read. Rucker has a knack for explaining the minutiae of legal procedure clearly as he weaves them into the story. The novel also ratchets up suspense in several effective ways; for example, Kate’s enemies knock Earl out, drug him, and get him locked up on a 72-hour psychiatric hold from which he must escape while not alerting the media. Other sides of Earl’s character are seen in, for example, his naming of his hound dog; when the canine was a puppy, Earl kept proclaiming “’Henceforth, your name shall be...’” until “the only name to which the dog would respond was ‘Henceforth.’ ” The affection and loyalty of Earl’s team, including secretary Martha Sullivan, officemate/mentor James McManis, and investigator Arthur “Manny” Munoz, also subtly reveal his personal qualities.
A thoroughly enjoyable page-turner.