Legal thriller writer Margolin (Sleight of Hand, 2013, etc.) turns back the clock to confront murder, deceit and slavery in frontier Oregon.
It’s 1860. Matthew Penny's established a hardscrabble law practice in bustling Portland, but Matthew isn’t happy. On the trail from Ohio to Oregon, his wife, Rachel, drowned during a river crossing. Haunted by her death, Matthew throws himself into cases he finds in taverns, farms and settlements, like Phoenix. Matthew’s there to try a civil case against Ben Gillette, Oregon’s richest man. Before that trial, however, the judge compels Matthew to defend a salesman against theft charges brought by a beautiful, mysterious traveler from San Francisco, Sharon Hill. Matthew loses, but before that trial, he had been approached by Worthy Brown, a former slave. Worthy warns him that Ben’s attorney intends to fix the Gillette jury. For that information, Worthy wants Matthew’s assistance in freeing his daughter from indentured servitude. Ben’s attorney, Caleb Barbour, came to Oregon from the slave state of Georgia. Caleb’s reneged on a promise to free the pair after arrival in Oregon. Margolin’s novel draws on historical elements, but midnarrative, he strays from legal confrontations over slavery. The story becomes historical fiction encompassing murder and romance, albeit one peopled with sympathetic characters, major and minor. Margolin shines in recreating pioneer life, especially as Matthew rides the court circuit, traipses mud-bogged Portland streets and sails to gold-rush–rich San Francisco. There, Matthew confronts a crooked lawyer conspiring to loot the Gillette empire. In the end, there's legal wrangling, murder and romance, set against the backdrop of race and frontier life.
Margolin’s dialogue is sometimes affected, sometimes faintly anachronistic, but his scene-setting, knowledge of the frontier and relating of the hard task of the law make for an appealing read that, the author says, took 30 years to write.