FIREBALL: A Courtroom Drama by Robert G. Begam

FIREBALL: A Courtroom Drama

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When a railroad tank car filled with liquid propane explodes, 27 people in Florian, Ohio, are killed, 107 are injured--and a giant lawsuit on behalf of the casualities is brought against the railroad, the tank car manufacturer, and the oil company. Begam, veteran attorney and first-time novelist, covers the ensuing trial in painstaking detail (sometimes fascinating, often dullish) while working hard to juice things up with the personalities of the lawyers involved (sometimes diverting, often foolish). Representing all those plaintiffs is the N.Y.C. superstar of personal-injury law, suave Joe Purcell, who'd much rather stay home and finish the musical-comedy he's writing for his showbiz-girlfriend. (But his partner Max Aranow, a cutesy baseball fanatic, in. sists.) Representing the three corporations is prim chess-buff Arthur Hawkes. And though 100+ cases hang in the balance, the judge (a salty sort) chooses a single ""specimen"" case for trial: the death of school-bus-driver Janet Brophy. So, after jury-selection, the testimony wild relate not only to big issues--whether the accident was an ""Act of God,"" whether there was negligence (or conspiracy) by the corporations, etc.--but to the value of Mrs. Brophy's life (to her children and no-good husband). Also adding to the mix: an anonymous attempt at jury-tampering, a blackmail attempt by a slimy ambulance-chaser, one disaster victim's suicide, and two not-very-surprising surprise witnesses. Begam is less than deft at coordinating all these subplots: the effect is more often distracting than enhancing (and downright embarrassing when Purcell's supposedly wonderful song-lyrics are showcased). And, unlike the best courtroom dramas, this one requires lots of talky explanation--e.g., compensatory vs. punitive damages--and sometimes lapses into undramatic stretches of transcript. Still, though Begam's long, sprawling novel provides neither high drama nor serious substance (the biggest issues remain fuzzy), it's shambling, likably ragged entertainment, with enough tough trial-practice specifics to balance the cornball-fiction flavorings.

Pub Date: Aug. 31st, 1987
Publisher: McGraw-Hill