An attorney defends a childhood friend on a murder charge while receiving guidance from his mentor’s ghost in this debut legal thriller.
Born in the early 1980s in Chico, a California farming town, the nameless narrator of this novel becomes a lawyer in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps in South Florida. His apathy is, for once, replaced by pride and a sense of purpose. But when his lover, a former client, breaks things off with him, she reports him to his commanding officer, forcing the narrator’s resignation. Deciding that moving back to Chico might be a good idea, he sends around a highly embellished resume and gets an offer. In Chico, the narrator’s new boss, John Hodgkinson, becomes his mentor until dying about a year later. The narrator begins his own practice, his confidence increasing, although being back in Chico is lonely. His family ties are frayed (his mother’s dementia is worsening) and during many solitary hours, he drinks and goes on long drives, which later he recollects only vaguely. In 2016, the narrator’s self-assurance is shaken again by the homicide case he’s assigned, given that his resume falsely claimed experience with felony murder trials. His client is Scotty Watts, a high school acquaintance who’s deteriorated from sports hero to drug addict and jailbird. Scotty has since tried to go straight, but now faces a murder charge, claiming to remember nothing about why he was discovered mopping up a large pool of blood. No body can be found, but the amount of blood suggests murder. As the narrator investigates, he notices that something about the case is weirdly familiar. Odder still, Scotty’s dog begins speaking to him, and the narrator sees and hears John, who offers advice and commentary. As the narrator defends his client and keeps searching, he gets closer to unbearable truths.
In his novel, Benson offers a believable courtroom drama that’s nicely explicated and grounded in good legal details such as the voir dire jury-selection process. The Chico setting also contributes to the overall story; for example, the tension between traditional agricultural farmers and marijuana growers like Scotty suggests possible motives for framing him. Beyond that, the author takes a standard form, the legal thriller, and adds subtle notes of psychological/supernatural suspense. John’s ghostly presence in the narrator’s life is at first mild, though strange; he offers supportive remarks and wise counsel, such as a book recommendation (The Conscience of a Lawyer by David Mellinkoff). The dog’s occasional comments could be seen as imaginative or even whimsical. But John’s appearances become frightening; he sports a grotesquely stretched-out smile and repeats phrases over and over (“The bandanna, the water, the farmers, the lot, the wind, the rain”) that have something to do with the murder, and drive the narrator to distraction. The groundwork for all this is laid early on, but with such a light touch that clues are easy to overlook, and will keep many readers guessing until the end.
Well-written, insightful, and spooky—an entertaining courtroom tale.