Does The Guilty Plea Do Justice?
- Monday, July 25, 2011
Author: Robert Rotenberg
Title: The Guilty Plea
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The case of Terrance Wyler's murder seems pretty open and shut. His body is discovered on his kitchen floor by the housekeeper, who also finds his four-year-old son, Simon, sleeping upstairs in his room.
A few hours after Toronto detectives arrive to work the scene, Wyler's estranged wife, Samantha, with whom he was set to battle in divorce court that very day, delivers the bloody knife to her lawyer's office. Such overwhelming circumstantial evidence fairly begs for a guilty plea.
But Robert Rotenberg, author of Old City Hall, knows that a high-stakes, tension-filled courtroom drama needs more than a straightforward plea bargain.
Samantha can't bring herself to take the deal, and her initial acquiescence turns into a stubborn refusal to lose the case and her son. Her lawyer, Ted DiPaulo, uses every trick he's learned in his decades on the bench to sway the jury in her favor.
But Crown Attorney Jennifer Raglan teams up with investigators Ari Green and Daniel Kennicott to crush Samantha's claim of innocence beneath a truckload of evidence.
The impending divorce plays a pivotal role, with acrimonious communications proving ill will between the Wylers, not to mention the appearance of their respective lovers. The resulting courtroom saga proves riveting, and the verdict is sure to surprise even veteran legal thriller lovers.
The daily trial back-and-forth is the most entertaining part of the book. Rotenberg is truly talented at writing gripping dialogue and evoking sympathy and empathy—for the jury, the defendant, or the lawyers, take your pick— from his readers. Those scenes will keep the pages turning.
But every good yarn depends on quality characters. This tale of jealousy and murder oozes characters critical to the plot. But almost every one of them seems underdeveloped. Samantha is probably the most complex—the author provides context for her unlikeable personality, and she grows as a person throughout the trial. We genuinely want justice for her.
Greene and Kennicott reprise their investigative roles from Old City Hall, showing off their professional skills adequately enough. But they have their own backstories—neither of which has bearing on the main plot. Similarly, the detailed prose given to Raglan's personal life, while interesting, left me wondering what the point was.
The same with the victim's girlfriend, and his oldest brother. Perhaps I just dislike red herrings. But none of these secondary plotlines were woven into the murder trial. They just dangle out there waiting to be resolved or left wanting to be meaningful.
You may wonder, "What's a Crown Attorney?" The story is set in Toronto; hence, the Canadian court system comes into play. As an American reader, I enjoyed learning bits of Canadian law and legal tradition that differ from that in the States. Rotenberg does a nice job of showing, and only occasionally lapsing into telling, readers about uniquely Canadian features crucial to the story.
The Guilty Plea moves quickly and entertains thoroughly. Legal drama fans will likely want to pick up his previous work as well, and look forward to more.
*This review first published 7/25/2011
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