by Jay Fromkin | 2/17/2014
" I haven't read a lot of legal thrillers - Scott Turow's first and a couple of John Grishams when trapped on an airplane. But Cousin Frank brought be a bag of paperbacks to help me get through post-surgical recovery. I'd never heard of Richard North Patterson (though my wife told me he was very popular). Having just started Patterson's "The Final Judgement), Patterson seems to have a standard set-up: an accomplished attorney has to return to his/her hometown, having previously vowed never to return. But he/she has a responsibility to prove a friend/relative innocent of murder. I didn't know that when reading "Silent Witness," so I just went along with the premise. In this case, it's super-attorney Tony Lord, who returns to his Ohio hometown to defend his high school best friend, Sam Robb - vice principal of his high school - against charges of murdering a student with whom he'd been having a sexual relationship. As a high school student, Tony had been accused of murdering his girlfriend, Alison Taylor, after having sex with her following the big football game which Tony, the quarterback, and Sam, the receiver won for their school. Tony is conflicted by his high school experience, his relationship with Sam, his relationship with Sam's wife, Sue, and his doubts about Sam's innocence. He is, however, a dedicated and determined criminal defense attorney, who will use any means at his disposal, including casting reasonable doubt by pointing a finger at another high school friend who knew the dead girl, Marcie Calder.
While all of the lawyering keeps a level of suspense about Marcie's murder, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes - or even Tony Lord - to figure out who murdered Marcie Calder and who murdered Alison Taylor. Patterson betrays the mystery through his characters' dialog - there's just too much yammering between and among the principal characters about Alison's murder, the night she died, the police investigation of Tony, the police investigation of Sam, how sorry everyone is about the murders and the accusations. Tony and Sam really are not very interesting characters, and Sue is just connective tissue. The most interesting characters are Stella Marz, a prosecutor with steel in her spine and a genuine outrage about crimes against women, and Saul Ravin, the aging attorney who had represented Tony in the matter of Allison Taylor and helped Tony in his defense of Sam Robb.
What did I like? The high school friendship/competition between Tony and Sam was spot on in the details and genuine in its emotion. The two are both stellar athletes, but things just seem to come easier to Tony, which Sam resents. They are both candidates for the school's athlete of the year, which Sam wins but can't convince himself he was more deserving than Tony. He has a terrific girlfriend, but has convinced himself that Tony's is a better catch. When Tony comes back to defend Sam, he's conflicted between gratitude (though Sue asked Tony to defend Sam) and resentment against again falling into the shadow of the better athlete, who's now a legal legend.
My wife was an attorney in another life, and I've sat on juries. As on TV and int he movies, Tony and Stella are the kind of lawyers we'd all like to have in a pinch - but which we rarely see in real life. The courtroom scenes are well done, with incisive questioning and anticipation of the opposition's questions; and dramatic, but not overly dramatic, opening and closing statements. Of course, we have the destruction of witness testimony and ingenious interpretations of evidence. The result of the trial is not surprising, but the denoument was. In the end the book really is about ethics - of police and prosecutors, educators, local politicians, victims' family members, and legal advocates. "