A public defender’s first case concerns a fairly routine burglary until the prosecutor adds murder charges in this legal thriller.
Noah Shane nearly loses his new job as assistant public defender before it’s even begun. The flu-ridden lawyer misses his first two days, then braves the nausea to make it to the Public Defender’s office in Alameda County, California. His initial assignment is interviewing 23-year-old Pablo Ruiz, who’s in jail for allegedly swiping 300 pounds of butter from a dairy truck. The circumstances are unusual, but it’s a case Noah believes he can handle, especially if a plea bargain is on the table. But Noah is suddenly facing the district attorney’s chief trial deputy, Marco Salem, who amends the charges against Pablo to include murder in the first degree. The case now involves the bullet-riddled body of noted stockbroker Warren Van Zandt. Despite overwhelming evidence against Pablo, such as his fingerprints in Van Zandt’s condo, he denies even knowing the broker. Noah feels a more experienced lawyer should take the reins of a murder case, but his boss, Jim Stark, dismisses that suggestion. In fact, Stark demands that Noah take the prosecutor’s eventual plea offer. But Noah is determined to see things through even when he suspects his client isn’t telling him everything. Working closely with legal investigator Buzz Hoogasian, Noah starts unraveling the murder mystery. But certain individuals who want the case to go away resort to despicable tactics, from intimidation and threats to something decidedly more lethal.
Weinberg’s (A Grateful Nation, 2015) story, a prequel to his earlier novel featuring the public defender, is an all-round solid thriller. Well-established villains, for one, are an unquestionable menace, trying to force Noah into submission by targeting his friends. At the same time, Van Zandt’s killer is not immediately known, leading to unnerving instances of Noah’s pondering the notion that Pablo is indeed guilty. The protagonist is admirable but grounded—a diligent lawyer prone to making mistakes. These flubs actually earn him sympathy: He’s the new guy at work and, with no one to guide him, learning as he goes along. Weinberg perfectly captures Noah’s first days on the job: He wisely gets help from whomever he can, including Stark’s accommodating assistant, Bobbi Matthews, and constantly worries about proper court procedure. But the tale’s pre-eminent scenes involve Noah’s jailhouse visits; just getting to Pablo is a process rife with meticulous steps and reminiscent of the slow but assiduous murder trial. They moreover showcase the story’s effectively prolonged moments: Pablo “reached into the left breast pocket of his jumpsuit and removed a worn, creased paper. He unfolded carefully, probably for the hundredth time, and flattened it on the table.” Supporting characters shine, particularly Buzz and Kate Waverly, Noah’s law school friend. A recovering alcoholic, Buzz has one-sided conversations with the rubber duck hanging from his car’s rearview mirror. Meanwhile, Noah’s relationship with potential lover Kate is complicated by Stark. He takes a shine to her but not so much to Noah.
Consistently riveting—whether the protagonist contends with baddies or hones his skills in the courtroom.