Caught in a sexually compromising position with one of her Mafioso clients, a bulldog attorney must call on her long-estranged, up-and-coming lawyer son to defend her at an ethics hearing in this debut novel.
Rising in the male-dominated legal world of Atlanta in the 1970s, Carter Scales earned her moniker of the “Dragon Lady” by being a force of nature in the courtroom and a stone wall against the constant misogyny she faced while defending some of the most notorious members of organized crime. This reputation follows her and her practice into the present day, but in a moment of emotional weakness, she jeopardizes it all and is caught performing oral sex on the head of the Salucci crime family in prison. Her one hope is her son, Benjamin, who struggled under her domineering influence and his own emotional immaturity yet still became a remarkably savvy and successful defense attorney himself. His contentious upbringing and deep familiarity with his mother’s history, from her divorce to the constant sexism she faced and the death of a judge she and her son wanted as part of their family, could save her career, though Ben’s interest is in getting something from Carter he’s never had before—an apology. Despite initial impressions, Sheffield’s book (inspired by real events) is no legal thriller, though the author does call on his own extensive background with the law to give readers a firsthand understanding of the wheeling, dealing, and grappling that go on among attorneys, clients, and judges. Instead of trading in empty suspense or surprise witnesses, the novel focuses on the dynamics between mother and son, the demands the former makes for her sacrifices and how the latter internalizes them, both blaming himself for what was missed and spiting her for putting her work over his happiness. As narrator, Ben is a joy, intolerably immature but well-balanced by his self-awareness and sense of humor, though it is, at times, a little odd how specific his knowledge of some of his mother’s more intimate moments is. The interactions between Ben and Carter, particularly their fights, are the novel’s strongest moments, so plausibly navigating between the hilarious and the heartbreaking in their arguments that their eventual détente feels truly hard-won.
A tale with a realistic legal backdrop that spotlights the engrossing trials of a contentious mother-and-son relationship.