Debut author Fomby (Private Eyes, 2017), a Texas attorney, takes on the entrenched legal system in Blair County, Texas, in the first installment of a new series featuring young criminal defense attorney Samantha “Sam” Tulley.
After her husband, Luke, was killed in a car crash, Sam left a promising career at a large Houston law firm to start her own small-town practice in criminal law, working out of her home in Blair County, where she raises her 3-year-old daughter. Her clients are mainly poor, with many sitting in the county lockup, unable to make bail. She’s spent a year handling mostly misdemeanor cases, but as this book opens, she’s representing Andrea Owens, a woman who’s been accused of stabbing her boyfriend, Robbie Johnson. Andrea’s defense is that Robbie was attacking her and that she was just holding the knife for protection. This is the first of several cases that Sam will handle over the course of the novel, and it’s also the one that causes her private-detective colleague, Randy Martinez, to warn her that moving into felony work has placed her in a new, and nasty, arena. The district attorney’s office, Randy tells her, isn’t just about “pulling legal tricks….These guys are in deep with the police and the sheriff’s department.” Evidently, they’re suspiciously connected to a few judges as well. Things heat up to a dangerous level when Samantha agrees to represent a man who’s been arrested for the gruesome triple murder of his wife and two children.
The revolving legal stories presented here, with the exception of the murder trial, are all cases of “small crime”—less dramatic than the headline-grabbing cases but still of great consequence to those caught in the judicial bureaucracy—in which prejudices and soaring egos are routinely rewarded. Fomby nicely wraps the various stories around a narrative that develops Sam into a strong, fully developed protagonist who could easily serve as the engine of her own series. A melodramatic subplot involving Sam’s former in-laws may stretch readers’ credulity just a bit, but it rounds out her personal story as she fights the good fight for those without the money or influence to buy freedom from prosecution. The author came to the law late in life, embarking on a major career change at 50. But he’s accumulated enough legal experience to give his novel a constant momentum, creating realistic forays into case law, behind-the-scenes legal machinations, the process of jury selection, and courtroom fireworks. His lucid prose makes the legal jargon readable and informative, and he smoothly executes the transitions between Sam’s professional and personal lives. Harry Crawford, a third-year law student who’s Sam’s summer legal assistant, isn’t fully developed as a character, but he has the potential of becoming a solid secondary protagonist down the road. (Plus, he adds a hint of potential romance.) Overall, this novel is a welcome addition to the ever popular legal genre.
A scathing indictment of the Texas criminal justice system and a satisfying read with a cliffhanger ending.