In Cleveland’s debut thriller, two attorneys who share a volatile past face off in a murder trial.
The small town of Big Shanty, Va., doesn’t see too much crime, so the murder of a family in their home immediately grabs the headlines. Prosecuting attorney John Keene seems to have an easy case after the surviving twin son provides the cops a viable suspect. But the quick arrest of the alleged perp, drug dealer Larice Jones, doesn’t placate Keene after he learns public defender Nolan Getty is handling the case. The two lawyers faced off years ago; mutual animosity has lingered. Both men manipulate the justice system and sift through lies to win the trial—and defeat each other. Cleveland’s story sizzles in and out of the courtroom. Its nonlinear structure, which bounces back and forth between the ongoing trial and preceding events, keeps the narrative moving at a crackling pace. In the same vein, suspense is rigorously preserved: Most big reveals happen in the courtroom, not via omniscience, and there’s a persistent uncertainty as to whether Jones is guilty. The highpoints of the novel are its two thematically distinctive leads: Keene wants justice, Getty is looking to protect constitutional rights, and each man thinks the other is working against him. Keene is given a more profound backstory, but Getty, whom the narrative tends to favor, is the greater of the two, helped by the fact that he’s pitted as the underdog, having lost the previous case to Keene. Some of the plot twists are predictable, but that doesn’t matter; it’s more rewarding to watch the attorneys swing at a curveball than to watch the pitch itself. The supporting characters are a vibrant bunch, too, ranging from naïve, inexperienced assistants to Getty’s perhaps-schizophrenic second-in-command, Rick, who’s prone to standing alone in a closet for no discernible reason.
A solid legal thriller that tramples tedium and melodrama.