Friday, December 01, 2006

In the Shadow of the Law (A From-the-Stacks Entry)

Formal Entry for From-The-Stacks Challenge (#2)
In the Shadow of the Law

This was an addition to my published list for the challenge. I offer a monthly book talk/group session at my local library and this was the selection for that session in November. My selected theme for the second half of 2006 was courtroom mysteries/thrillers and according to Amazon, I've had this book on my shelf since April of this year.

Title: In the Shadow of the Law
Author: Kermit Roosevelt
Publication Data: 2005 (hardcover, ISBN 0-374-26187-3) 2006 (trade paper)
Length: 368 pages
Category: Fiction

Summary: In the Shadow of the Law exposes the working lives of eight lawyers at Washington DC law firm, Morgan Siler. Three young associates, Mark Clayton, Ryan Grady and Katja Phillips, have responsibility for pushing a death penalty appeal and a class-action suit through the appropriate legal processes to final decision. Over them are law firm partners, Peter Morgan, Harold Fineman, and Wallace Finn, each with an individual attitude as to practice of the law. Threaded throughout are the activities of two more practiced associates, Walker Eliott and Gerald Roth. Eliott is a former Supreme Court law clerk and Roth has risen from lowly status as paralegal to associate status via the channel of graduating from law school at night. This is *not* truly a legal suspense novel nor is it a courtroom drama; its value resides in being a character-driven, fictional portrayal of the legal profession. As a first novel, it is certainly more sophisticated than most. The narrative style is very complex, slowing the pace of the story. The overview of how the practice of law has changed in the past four or five decades is interesting and there are excellent moments of real humor.

Extract: Random House has posted an excerpt from the audio-book here. In my estimation, the writing style here in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure is not all that difficult with only occasional unfamiliar words popping up. (Quick, can *you* define "velleity" and use it in a sentence? I couldn't. Google defines it this way.) It is the narrative style that makes the book challenging.

Also Relevant: The book group at the library hated it, by and large. Of the seven brave souls who came out last night, only one of them had actually made it through the whole book; everyone else gave up at some point in the first third of the book. Now this is quite unusual for the regulars in this group. Most of the time, as participants, they show up having read the full text even if they don't like it. Of the seven, only one had finished it and actually said she had liked it. The others looked at me with expressions that conveyed a muted sense of bewilderment at and dislike of my selection.

The formal reviews that I could find (a normal part of the way I prepare for a book discussion) were mixed. The Christian Science Monitor said it "combines satisfyingly intricate puzzles with plenty of bite and some musings about the nature of the law" but did acknowledge that the resolution might have been a shade too tidy for realism.

What makes this book satisfying on one level is that the lawyers figure out "whodunnit" without resorting to unlikely detecting activities. Lawyers deal with paper and these lawyers resolve their cases using the paper trail engendered by legal activity. One case is resolved according to the spirit of the law and the other through the use of the letter of the law.

The author's aim, as indicated here at Findlaw, was to provide potential law students with a better understanding of the practice of law as exercised by professionals in a variety of roles. Assuming that he succeeded in his own estimation, I can read Shadow and use it as a gauge to determine whether I would enjoy the law as a profession. Frankly, I wouldn't like the environment, as portrayed by Roosevelt, but I certainly know more about the practice of the profession now than I knew before I read the book. I can even make a guess as to why my older sister *does* enjoy her chosen profession rather than making a face and muttering "because she is just that sort..."

I also think the character development in the novel is fairly strong. You believe in these people; they're not stereotypes. There is the drawback that only one or two are even faintly sympathetic, but they are delineated well and have idiosyncratic aspects. Having said that, his naming conventions bothered me initially in that the names Walker and Wallace are too similar. The eye processes W-A-L fairly quickly, but the next letter is either a lowercase "l" or "k" and that slows the identification process by the reader down. (Personally, I wish authors would think about that as they're writing, but I've read enough interviews to know that the creative process for many doesn't allow that.) But that is clearly nit-picking.

Personally, I still think it was a worthwhile read. It was not a great book, but it was an interesting one.