Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Attorneys feature in all sorts of crime fiction, from courtroom dramas to whodunits to legal thrillers. It’s a natural match, too, for obvious reasons. Let’s take a look at the way one attorney works today, and turn the spotlight on David Rosenfelt’s Unleashed, the eleventh in his Andy Carpenter series.
Carpenter is a New Jersey lawyer who also owns an animal rescue shelter. One day, his accountant, Sam Willis, comes to him with a strange and unsettling story. Willis’ old high school friend Barry Price has become extremely successful. Not long ago, Price asked Willis if he still works with Carpenter. It seemed that Price might be in need of a good criminal lawyer, but he wouldn’t tell Willis why. He did, though, arrange for Willis to join him on a short trip in his private plane. At the last minute, though, Willis accidentally injured a dog with his car, and had to take the animal to an emergency veterinarian (don’t worry, animal lovers; it’s not spoiling the story to say that the dog makes it through just fine). But the delay meant that Willis didn’t get to the plane on time. That emergency saved his life, since the plane crashed and Price died.
Matters get even more complicated when it’s shown that Price was poisoned before he boarded the plane. The most likely suspect is his widow Denise, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. She claims to be innocent, and asks Carpenter to defend her; he agrees to do so.
Carpenter won’t be able to deny Denise’s access to the poison, or the sorry state of her marriage, both of which count against her. So does the fortune she’ll inherit. So, he looks for other suspects who might also have had access the poison and a good motive. It soon comes out that Barry Price was in a great deal of trouble. Something had gotten him badly frightened. As Carpenter pursues that lead, he finds that Price could indeed have been in real danger.
Carpenter’s in the middle of planning his legal strategy when Denise implicates Willis in the murder, claiming that she was having an affair with him. She alleges that he killed Price in order to be with her. In exchange for this incriminating information, she’ll be freed. It’s not long before the police find evidence to support Denise’s claim, and Willis is duly arrested.
The stakes are even higher now, since Willis is not just Carpenter’s accountant, but also his friend. Carpenter’s already established that he believes his former client is innocent. If she is, then who did kill Barry Price? As Carpenter gets closer to the truth, he learns that the implications of this case go far beyond just getting his friend out of prison. And someone is willing to kill rather than allow any witnesses to support Carpenter’s case.
Andy Carpenter is an attorney, so the legal aspects of this case are important elements in the story. Readers follow along as Carpenter prepares his case, talks to people who might testify, and so on. There are also several courtroom scenes where Carpenter uses legal strategies to defend his client. Since the story is told from his point of view, we also learn why he chooses the strategies he chooses. Readers also get a look at the way attorneys get information that helps their cases, or find out about information that hurts them. It’s also of note that there are several places where Rosenfelt points out the difference between pre-trial hearings (in which it’s decided whether to hold a suspect over for trial) and actual trials, in US law. There are differences in terms of evidence allowed, among other things, and Rosenfelt shows that.
This novel has a bit of the thriller about it, and that thriller element impacts the pacing of the novel, as well as some of what happens in it. There are dangerous moments, a shadowy enemy, and more. There’s also a bit of suspension of disbelief. Readers who do not like to let their disbelief out of their sight when they read will notice this.
Many thrillers also have their share of violence. This novel, though, isn’t really like that. There is more than one murder, but the murders are, by and large, ‘off stage.’ And those that are depicted are not described in gory detail. Readers who prefer not to have a lot of violence in their novels will appreciate this.
There is plenty of wit in the novel. For example, at one point, Carpenter goes to see the man who maintained Barry Price’s plane, to see whether mechanical failure was involved in the plane crash:
‘Morristown Municipal Airport…was built to serve as a place for planes to go when JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark becomes overcrowded. Since I have never been at those airports when they aren’t overcrowded, I’m surprised that Morristown Airport is so empty…
Mulligan…greets me with a smile and a handshake. His hands aren’t greasy; I don’t think private planes have any grease. Grease is for peasants.’
There are also a few quirky characters.
That said, though, this isn’t a comic caper novel. There are real lives at stake, and Sam Willis’ freedom is at stake as well. Carpenter doesn’t forget that as he works to defend his friend.
I don’t usually do this in my spotlight feature, but in this case, a note is in order about the cover, which depicts a dog. Several other covers in this series do, too. Some readers might draw the conclusion that that means this is a cosy series featuring dogs. It’s not. Dogs feature only in the sense that Carpenter is owned by a dog, and also owns an animal shelter. It’s not the sort of series where a dog, say buries or discovers a critical piece of evidence, or saves an owner.
Unleashed is a whodunit with thriller elements (and some wit) that plays out in a New Jersey courtroom. It features a client who’s caught in a web much bigger than he thought, and an attorney who uses all of his legal skills to defend that client. But what’s your view? Have you read Unleashed? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 25 July/Tuesday, 26 July – Our Trespasses – Steph Avery
Monday, 1 August/Tuesday, 2 August – Shield of Straw – Kazuhiro Kiuchi
Monday, 8 August/Tuesday, 9 August – State Fair – Earlene Fowler