Absorbing but by-the-numbers courtroom melodrama, with all the moral complexities, last-minute revelations, and gavel-pounding histrionics that the genre requires.
The Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), actor Hackman’s debut fiction with his underwater archaeologist writing partner Lenihan, was a high-seas swashbuckler that, if not for Patrick O’Brian, could have been called the kind of novel nobody writes anymore. The team’s second historical tale recalls classic American courtroom thrillers from To Kill a Mockingbird to Intruder in the Dust, but is closer to John Grisham's recent Faulkner-Lite efforts. Though set in 1929 in a nostalgically described Illinois hamlet, the story of Boyd Carter, a hapless trolley car operator on trial for the shooting murder of his wife and her loathsome lover, reads more like an extended metaphor of America’s loss of moral center after the Vietnam War. Boyd is a severely shell-shocked WWI vet whose grim experiences included the mercy killing of a critically wounded officer and the use of a corpse to shield himself from capture during the Battle of Argonne. Like the ’Nam vets who could not pick up the pieces of their prewar lives, Boyd has become a permanent outsider to all but a few who think they know him better than he knows himself. The central question here—how much can we really know our neighbors?—fades away as the authors bring on the usual elements of courtroom melodrama, with mostly stock characters reciting familiar lines. Exceptions are the defiant black prisoner Boyd befriends and the wounded, wonderfully compassionate Major Hennessey, administrator of the town’s Soldiers Home, whom Hackman must play if this is ever filmed.
Great small-town period detail with standard-issue courtroom scenes, a few too many stock characters, and an appropriately bitter twist ending.