The year 1968 was a tumultuous time in America. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, Vietnam War protestors filled the streets, and violence broke out during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That chaotic year is the setting for this legal thriller, which tries to recapture some of that era’s idealistic spirit. Matt Harris joins the public defender’s office in Solina, California, where the court system is filled with bullying and prejudicial judges and where poor African-Americans, Hispanics and others at the bottom of society’s ladder receive no justice. Sparked by the feelings of rage in the air, Harris and other public defenders decide that they are going to stop advising their clients to take plea bargains because they usually result in innocent people receiving unjust punishment; instead, they resolve to start trying every single case. This plays havoc with the system and makes enemies of the judges. Meanwhile, Harris deals with the fact that his girlfriend, Stella, is battling cancer. In this novel, Franklin attempts to recapture a unique time in American history: The judges represent the law-and-order element that wanted to keep a lid on change, and the public defenders are, in effect, the liberals who aimed to tear down the establishment. The book exclusively tells its story from Harris’ point of view, which doesn’t allow readers to see how the other public defenders are faring in court, beyond the occasional casual reference. Franklin does successfully use many 1968 touchstones, particularly song titles (such as Dion DiMucci’s rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John”), to set his scenes. Sometimes he tries too hard, however, particularly with his characters’ clichéd and constant use of the term “pigs” to describe those representing the established system. Harris’ love affair with Stella is reminiscent of Love Story, and she, like other characters here, often seems like a cardboard construct who doesn’t exist except when she’s with him.
A thriller with a unique story idea and a well-captured historical mood but hampered by one-dimensional characters.