"The Law of Second Chances"
by Marshall Snider
Do you ever wonder why so many courtroom-centered crime novels are written by lawyers? Are there that many frustrated novelists or frustrated litigators among our ranks? Whatever the motivation, these stories usually don’t rise to the level of great literature. Even so, if you can keep yourself from yelling, "They can’t do that!" during the courtroom scenes, this is a type of read you might occasionally enjoy.
"The Law of Second Chances" by Florida attorney James Sheehan starts out like so many of this genre — a murder is committed in New York City, involving colorful New York City characters. The case is investigated by a colorful New York City detective who speaks in colorful New York City language while doggedly pursuing the killer. Enter lawyer Jack Tobin, as usual a lawyer with an interesting — if not troubled — past whose legal experience provides no indication that he should be defending a capital murder case.
So far: been there, read that. At this point, the story is entertaining in a television crime show sort of way, but nothing special.
To Sheehan’s credit, however, the author introduces a few elements to raise the story up a notch. He develops several characters in such a way that you actually care about them. Tobin’s wife, stricken with cancer, comes across as an appealing, smart and strong individual. And Henry Wilson, the first of Tobin’s clients facing lethal injection (yes, there are more than one) is a career criminal who surprises the reader in many ways. (Wilson is a physically imposing specimen, reminiscent of the larger-than-life death row inmate John Coffey in Stephen King’s "The Green Mile.")
In addition to the obligatory courtroom scenes, there is actually an administrative hearing before the Florida medical board. As a former administrative law judge who heard cases on behalf of Colorado’s Board of Medical Examiners, this was the part of the book where I had to rise from my chair and yell, "They can’t do that!" But I will cut Sheehan some slack on this point. Very few administrative hearings find their way into literature at all (I can’t imagine why not – think of what a great novel you could build around a zoning dispute), so I’ll give the author credit for trying.
Returning to the main story, lawyer Tobin, who indeed has a fascinating history and now represents death row inmates on a pro bono basis, gets involved in the two cases: the big fellow facing lethal injection in Florida, and a smarmy but colorful petty criminal charged with first-degree murder in New York City. It is the New York case that requires us to suspend disbelief and remember that this is just a story as Tobin goes to trial with no idea of how he will defend his client.
Tobin builds a defense based on an alternative explanation for the murder that he has no idea if he can prove. The evidence supporting this defense is as much a surprise to the reader as it is to Tobin, and even more surprising is that the defense might succeed. If you like to try to figure out who done it as you read a crime story, fuggedaboudit (example of colorful New York City language found in this book). As much as you suspect you know how the deceased became the deceased, there is no way you can solve this crime because, like a Perry Mason TV drama, none of the facts come out until trial.
"The Law of Second Chances" is not apt to win any literary awards. Still, if you like courtroom murder stories and are looking for an escape from reality or serious thought — or 2008 presidential election politics — this novel might be worth a couple of evenings of your non-billable time.