I haven't read a good courtroom drama in many, many years. I'd read Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent back in the early Nineties, and gave up before I made it half-way through his next novel. When John Grisham came along, I made it through three or four of his hollywood-esque legal thrillers, losing interest with each consecutive book. It is not that they were bad. They were exciting books that had little to do with the practice of law. I never really tried another legal thriller until I saw Gabriel Boutros' first novel The Guilty. Its promise of a defense attorney who can't look at himself in the mirror as he struggles to defend the guilty caught my attention. When I saw that Gabriel Boutros had spent twenty-four years as a lawyer in criminal law, I decided I would take a step back into the courtroom and see if it would be worth finding a seat in the juror's box.
Right away, I liked the opening scene. The novel is set in Montreal, Quebec, a city that is constantly dealing with its French/English duality. This added a nice flavor to the novel, though Boutros does a great job of not exploiting it for his plot. Instead, it is a background layer that provides just the right amount of character. We hear characters use French phrases now and then, but that's all. It adds just enough to give the novel a peculiar feel. As does the winter backdrop. Snow covers everything, characters must bundle up to brave the outside temperatures. Add it all together and Boutros has created a cold, slightly alien world. A perfect setting for the law.
As the story unfolded, I was quite pleased to see that the plot was going to stick with the courtroom. Too often a good crime drama ends up with car chases and intricate fist fights. This is often a sleight-of-hand trick to keep us from seeing the holes in the plot, or even to keep us from realizing there is very little plot at all. But Boutros pulls no punches as he crafts his story of a defense lawyer who is slowly coming to realize his job is nothing to be proud of. I wondered if he could keep it up, or if he would succumb to the temptation to splash his pages with blood and gunpowder.
But there is no need to use cheap theatrics with the reader when you can create characters that carry their weight from one scene to the next without the slightest misstep. And that is one of the strongest points of The Guilty. This is no quickly written Law and Order episode that wants to take advantage of some recent headline. Such fare is full of flat, boring stereotypes whose only role is to fill a spot in a scene or two to keep the story rolling. Not here. From the conflicted lawyer Robert Bratt, to smaller roles such as witnesses and court officials, The Guilty is full of interesting characters who infuse this novel with life.
And let me take a moment to point out two of them. Bratt's law firm partner, J.P. Leblanc, along with the judge presiding over the main trial, a Judge Green, are the sort of characters that not only stand out in this book, but would stand out in a movie version of this book. I couldn't help but think that they were the kind of roles that a veteran actor would love to ride to an Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor. In fact, the whole book reminded me of a Sydney Pollack movie-- the sort that is full of fascinating discussions on law, ethics, and our confusions over our own little roles in this mixed-up world.
There are no legal stunts that leave the reader shaking his head, disappointed that it all came down to a silly technicality or something equivalent to a legal prank. At no time did I want to jump up from my chair and shout "Objection, Your Honor! The author is misleading the reader!" From page one to the last page, the story unfolds with just the right amount of ever increasing tension. If I had been in the juror's box during the trial, not only would I have had no problem staying awake, I would have been in trouble for laughing out loud a few times, especially at the verbal repartee between Bratt and Judge Green. And throughout it all, I would have been on the edge of my seat, leaning ever closer to the witness stand, waiting for the next witness to thread his way through the mine field laid down by Robert Bratt.
I read the Kindle edition of the book, which I was able to borrow for free with Amazon Prime. I encourage anyone who is interested in reading a courtroom drama to pick up The Guilty. Gabriel Boutros is one of those rare lawyers you can trust.