In her brief introduction to this nine-story retrospective, the chronicler of upscale attorney Laura Di Palma and struggling-scale attorney Willa Janssen explains that several of them began life as full-fledged novels, and it shows. “Dream Lawyer,” which pits Willa against a just-offstage Laura; “Easy Go,” about a disbarred lawyer struggling to earn a second chance at respectability; and, best of all, the title story, which drags a divorcée into defending her husband for killing his second wife—each of them has enough surprises, and enough warmth, to sustain half a dozen lesser efforts. And Matera, editor most recently of Irreconcilable Differences (1999), obligingly supplies several lesser efforts so you can compare. “Performance Crime” is a silly tale of cereal murder and other pun-addled felonies that shows its gifted author marking time, and “Do Not Resuscitate” is the sort of ironic étude you’ve read a hundred times before. “The River Mouth” (a troubled romantic pair from the city meets a Yurok woman who tells them more about themselves than they wanted to know) and “If It Can’t Be True” (a terrorist’s demand for his sister to be released from a mental institution goes fatally awry) are both more successful as atmospheric sketches than achieved stories. Of all the non-attorney exhibits in evidence here, only “Destroying Angel” (a fungus expert meets her match in some lethal mushrooms) stacks up to the stories about the criminal bar.
Still, as the Shamus-winning “Dead Drunk” (who’s pouring water over homeless men who end up literally frozen?) shows, when you do want a lawyer, you can’t do better than Matera.