by John DeSimone
Stories come alive for me when they go beyond the conventional and dip into a range of storytelling that lets characters wear their faith like a mantle and not treat it like a sermon. Randy Singer’s page-turner fourth novel, Self Incrimination, successfully transcends the obviousness of the typical legal thriller by wrapping the meaning of redemption in flesh for us to see. While the book’s standard plot elements have all the potential of submerging to the depths of crass predictability, Mr. Singer expertly keeps the narrative afloat by evenly handing out disease and dysfunction, mixing in enough suspense and plot twists to keep the most jaded reader plunging forward.
Leslie Connors, a novice attorney is fiancéd to her partner, the sharp defense attorney, Brad Carson. The story takes place in the intimate surroundings of Virginia Beach, where Leslie has recently moved to work with Brad and to plan their wedding. And of course to defend those convicted of the gravest crimes. While Brad, the most experienced partner, draws a case worthy of a Hollywood soap opera, Leslie is assigned her first murder defense of one sixteen-year old Tara Bannister.
Tara wants a female attorney, and what Tara wants Tara gets. She needs legal counsel because she has dispatched her nefarious stepfather with a kill shot to the head, all in the name of family harmony. Complicating Leslie’s efforts to defend her young client, Tara has confessed to the crime with her chin up and her tongue wagging. Self-defense seems plausible, but not likely for one who so relishes her dirty deed. It’s enough that Leslie has never tried a capital case, but she has never even been to court. Why not start by defending sullen Tara; daughter of Trish, the mother who endures every psychotic act; stepdaughter of alcoholic, abusive, failing CEO, James Bannister; sister to fourteen-year-old Jamie, who suffers from an endearing case of Tourette’s syndrome. This family is so dysfunctional they could do the sequel to Little Miss Sunshine and no one would miss the original cast. If they every sat down to dinner together, I’m sure it ended in a food fight, if not a fist fight, shortly after the swearing began.
That’s just the main plot.
Leslie has enough to occupy her run up to her wedding keeping Tara out of jail, but what about the ache in her heart? Is it from the loss she feels over her deceased first husband?
At times yes, but the pain is also possibly mortal and caused by a rare heart condition. The doctor orders an egregious and invasive procedure sure to forever doom her to one-piece bathing suits, the ultimate indignity for a young, forever slender, sun seeker like Leslie. And so the subplot spins on, closely woven into the fabric of Tara’s case as the Commonwealth’s Attorney expertly argues that the forensic evidence points more to premeditation than self-defense. But then, what if Tara didn’t kill her stepfather, surely someone else did. Was it the duplicitous and slick Commonwealth’s Attorney, or the greasy homicide detective Anderson, or the self-obsessed video-game junkie Jamie? Who knows? Or was Tara so incensed over her step-father’s abuse of her mother that she carefully planned his murder. The evidence seems to point in that direction too.
All the while entwined in the backdrop is Brad’s case of defending a realty show contestant supposedly defrauded of his love interest by manipulative Hollywood producers. Like I said, there’s enough disease and dysfunction to go around. But a good story does not live by plot alone. Brad and Leslie are so well drawn, the banter between them charmingly realistic, at times warm, turning momentarily sharp, then business like, always spiced with affection so that both emerge from the page whole and sympathetic. Leslie is the smart, straight shooter; Brad is the wily defense attorney whose experience has taught him that justice is never automatic because it’s in the hands of mortals, no matter how blind to friendships and alliances judges and prosecutors say they are. Brad is a big part of the motor of this story. His wit is as sharp as any fictional character, always keeping things light and in perspective.
He reminds me of the major league baseball manager, a la Tommy Lasorda, who would vociferously contest a called third strike when everyone in the stadium knew it was a strike. Later he would tell his team the outburst was to keep the umpires honest. This story bristles with the fragility of justice. It is never a given that the truth will prevail and justice will be served. It’s something a good attorney must work to achieve.
But then where do I get off saying this book very well may transcend the genre. Well, if I tell you that, I give away the main plot points. Suffice it to say, this book is written by an evangelical Christian who admires the law and the gospel. He’s not heavy handed, but finds a way to work in an intriguing argument by C.S. Lewis for the existence of a loving God. This is enough for Leslie, but Brad is a hard case. Caring on the outside, skeptical on the inside, the way one would expect a good attorney to be, ever ready to argue the contrarian point of view. Brad’s mind is made up until he sees the meaning of the gospel. And that’s my point.
Art comes alive when the shift is made that allows characters and readers to come to their own conclusions, like a good defense attorney, never leading the witness, just setting out the facts as they are in front of a jury of peers. There is a measure of trust when the truth is allowed to shine for all to see in a dark and hurting world. This story is from an artist who believes that the truth in action is attractive in its own right to those that have eyes to see.
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