Tuesday, October 28, 2014
THE HANGING JUDGE
The Hanging Judge is the debut novel by author Michael Ponsor, a federal judge for the United States District Court in Massachusetts. And, it is a remarkable first novel.
The book begins with a gang related, drug related, drive by shooting that successfully killed its intended target. Unfortunately, it also killed an innocent bystander, a white nurse, mother of three, who was about to begin her shift, volunteering time at a nearby inner city clinic. The driver of the vehicle was apprehended by patrolman Alex Torricelli. When the driver entered into a plea agreement, he named Clarence Hudson as the shooter. Clarence “Moon” Hudson was a large black man with previous gang ties and a prior criminal record involving drugs. He was currently working a decent job, and he and his wife, Sandra – a young upper middle class black woman who was a student at the university – have a six month old daughter.
As Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, the case was transferred to federal court – ostensibly as a violation of the RICO statute – where the death penalty is a punishment option. Hudson’s is the first death penalty case in Massachusetts in fifty years. David S. Norcross is the federal judge who presides over Hudson’s trial.
Ponsor does an excellent job with his character development and his handling of the contentious death penalty issue. Through the various characters, we learn about the liberal academic viewpoint, the perspective of the victims’s families, the outlook of the defendant’s family and attorney, and, of course, the impact on the impartial judge. Ponsor also includes flashbacks to the real life Massachusetts murder case, and execution, of Dominic Daley and James Halligan, “hanged by mistake” in 1806.
I am not usually a fan of legal thrillers; as an attorney, I am often sidetracked in these books by the improper procedure, the erroneous judicial rulings, and the like. But, The Hanging Judge was spot on, and I loved it. I was especially ready to dislike the book as I was, at one time, a judicial law clerk to a federal judge. But, Ponsor’s fictionalization was so accurate that it left me feeling homesick. When Ponsor has the Chief Judge giving information to Norcross’s law clerks about “their judge”, I could immediately relate. Despite the passing of years, I still feel proprietary toward my judge.
The Hanging Judge is a realistic, well written, remarkable legal thriller. It can be enjoyed at a superficial, quick read level. Or, it can be enjoyed with a little thought about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Or, it can be enjoyed on a much deeper level, comparing the Hudson case with the Daley and Halligan case and looking at the issue through the eyes of the various characters.
The Hanging Judge is a wonderful book!
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
A Novel of Lady Jane Grey
As the book’s subtitle tells us, Innocent Traitor is a novel about Lady Jane Grey. It is one of Alison Weir’s few historical novels; in fact, it was her debut novel.
Innocent Traitor follows Jane Grey’s life, from her birth in October 1537 through her execution in February 1554 at the age of sixteen. Jane Grey was the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. She was the oldest of three daughters of Frances Brandon (Mary Tudor’s daughter) and Henry Grey.
Jane Grey was bright and extremely well educated. She was also very Protestant. When she was born, her parents dealt with their disappointment in not having a son by planning her marriage to the future king, her cousin Edward.
According to Innocent Traitor, her parents were cold, calculating, devious, and power hungry. Jane was simply their pawn in their biggest grab for power ever. Everything that they did for, with, and to Jane was to further their goal of having her marry the future King Edward VI. When Edward died at the age of sixteen, the plot needed to be modified. Instead of marrying the young king, the Protestant Jane would become queen.
Their plot was successful, and Jane was queen of England for nine days, when Henry VIII’s daughter Mary demanded the throne. The lords backed the Catholic Mary, the Lady Jane was held in the tower, and her execution was subsequently carried out.
The story of Jane Grey’s life and the devious machinations going on around her are interesting – and sad. Although I liked this book, I did not find the writing to be more than adequate, and, despite the author’s note at the end, I am still left wondering about the historical accuracy of much of the book.
Friday, October 3, 2014
FIELD OF PREY
If you have read my previous reviews of John Sandford’s books, you are aware of my dissatisfaction with his recent writing. Because of a character’s contradicting backstory, from one book to the next, less-then-scintillating plots, and some sub-par quality writing, I swore off reading Sandford….well, except for his Virgil Flowers books, as I love Virgil. But, even those books disappointed.
For some reason, I happened to pick up the latest in Sandford’s Lucas Davenport series, Field of Prey, and began to read. And, am I glad that I did!
In Field of Prey, teenagers parking at a deserted farm one night notice a horrific smell. When the police investigate, they discover a cistern filled with the remains of victims of a serial killer. And, of one thing Lucas is sure, the killer lives nearby.
Lucas does not lead this investigation, although he does work the case. He and his team are searching for a white collar criminal who had bilked thousands in a Ponzi scheme and who was either dead or had faked his own death. They are also working on a case involving two elderly couples buying and selling weapons and drugs out of their RV. And, the mentally ill brother of a bank robber who had been killed by police during a bank robbery is threatening Lucas and Jenkins, as they had provided information to the police who had killed his brother. Virgil was on vacation, but upon return, is working on a different mysterious murder case. While his team is working these cases, Lucas assists with what has been dubbed the “Black Hole” case. And, of course, Lucas does eventually solve the case.
Field of Prey seems to me to be more realistic than Sandford’s other recent work. Although the plot is not a “juicy” terrorist network or other hard to believe course of events like those other works, it is a complex, twisting, and nasty plot. In fact, this book scared the crap out of me – I took extra care to lock the doors and set the alarm while I was reading. Sandford has us following the logic used to resolve the case – unlike those other recent works, this path is not filled with gaping holes. I thought the process followed is coherent and believable. And, having Lucas monitor Shrake and Jenkins, who are off on the one case, Del, who is off on the second, and Virgil, who eventually is off on a third, gives the book a more authentic feel. The book also has decent balance between Lucas’s work and the development of his home life.
My thought, while reading Field of Prey, is that Sandford really wrote this. I have no evidence to support this – or evidence that he did not write the other recent works (or, that he didn’t write them alone) – but this book feels quintessentially Sandford. For example, at a point when the fifteenth skull had been found in the cistern, Del says “[s]omebody’s been a bad, bad boy.” (p 31). Perhaps more fitting, though, is when Sandford describes Lucas deciding where to park his Porsche at the BCA: “Today, he would park within pistol range.” (p 20). While experiencing Field of Prey, I was excited to encounter the Davenport of old and the Sandford experience of old. I am very surprised, therefore, to read reviewers who wonder if someone else wrote Field of Prey or who complain about the plot.
In my opinion, Sandford is back. Field of Prey is Sandford at his best.