Celebrity lawyer Spence (Give Me Liberty, 1998, etc.) ventures into fiction with this earnest, endless novel of a 1977 Wyoming murder trial whose every tangled root comes in for minute exploration.
When he was only a boy, Charlie Redtail saw something no boy should ever see: his Arapahoe father Joseph kicked to death by sheriff’s deputies after a disturbance at Ronnie Cotler’s saloon. Years later, he looked on as Cotler, still stung by the long-ago romantic defection of Charlie’s mother to Joseph Redtail, bought the shack Mary Hamilton lived in and threw Charlie’s mother out in the street when she refused to pay her back rent on her back. Most recently, Charlie had heard his lover Willow Hodges tell how Cotler and an investor in Spirit Mountain, the sacred Arapahoe ground Cotler was arranging to develop, had captured her during her protest against the development and nearly raped her. So when Cotler is shot to death, the law comes looking for Charlie, who promptly infuriates his lawyer, Abner Hill, by signing a confession in order to protect the pregnant Willow (who has meantime confessed to the murder herself in order to protect him). As the case lurches toward trial, conscientious defender Hill, ambitious prosecutor Ava Mueller, martyr-elect Charlie, his twin brother Billy (now a powerful Harvard MBA calling himself William R. Hamilton), and assassin/mystic Emmett Jones—all of them dragging around troubled, endlessly detailed family histories—take turns speechifying about reasonable doubt, the dilemma of being half-white and half-Arapahoe, the morality of state-sanctioned executions, the power of love, and the rhythms of the universe. Fans of Spence’s nonfiction waiting eagerly for legal pyrotechnics will have to settle for more of the same at trial before hunkering down for a mercilessly overextended epilogue.
Luckily, Spence has a lucrative day job he can always go back to. Readers are well-advised to stick to their own.