Lawyers,Guns and Money

13 Jan

What else to do on a snowbound day in a winter wonderland than hunker down with a hefty tome and enter the byzantine world of legal hijinks and real estate chicanery? My choice was to pick up Justin Peacock’s Blind Man’s Alley (Doubleday) and plow my way through it rather than plow my drive.

Legal thrillers have come some distance from Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder—though I think of To Kill A Mockingbird and Paris Trout as the paradigms of the genre, I suppose most readers are more inclined to John Grisham and Scott Thurow. But let’s not quibble.

Peacock, who is is himself an attorney, seeds his narrative with a cast of very smart, ambitious (the setting being Manhattan, the epicenter of ambition) and people who talk and walk the talk and walk of the street and the penthouse suite. Duncan Riley, born in Detroit of a mixed marriage makes it to Harvard and then to an elite law firm where he is being groomed by one of the firm’s lead partners. The firm represents ruthless real estate developer Simon Roth whose empire is in danger of being engulfed by a construction accident that kills three workers and the skulduggery that attaches to that incident.

Riley is inevitably put in the horns of an existential dilemma when his boss and mentor forces him to drop a pro bono murder defense he was seemingly successfully mounting. Peacock renders all of this plausibly and has a good grasp of the varied lives Manhattan’s denizens—rich and poor , high and low. Whether the legal mechanism that he uses to turn the murder case from it’s apparent unavoidable resolution is likely I leave legal specialists but it makes for fine courtroom drama.

All of the above aside, Peacock’s prose and dialogue is assured and straightforward. As in the initial chapter where we meet most of the key players:

Duncan wasn’t actually a fan of the work he was doing for Roth Properties: there were certainly sexier cases at the firm, including some of Blake’s. But there wasn’t an instant where he contemplated giving an honest answer, and he had no doubt Leah wasn’t expecting one. “You’re one of our firm’s most important clients, obviously,” he said instead. “It’s an honor to be trusted to work on your matters.”

Leah smiled dismissively, signaling nice try. “The bills from your firm go across my desk,” she said. “I saw that you billed over two hundred hours to us the other month. That can’t leave you much time to work on anything else.”

Duncan shrugged, a tad uneasy, not sure what Leah was looking for him to say. “It doesn’t really,” he said. “I’ve got a pro bono case, but that doesn’t take much time. As far as paying clients, right now you’re pretty much it. But it ebbs and flows.”

“What’s your pro bono case about?”

Duncan was surprised by the question, not expecting any actual curiosity about his professional life from Leah. “It’s just defending a family in an eviction proceeding.”

“Is that all?” Leah said archly.

Duncan felt a mix of annoyance and embarrassment, but tried not to let either show. His dismissiveness had not been directed at the case itself, which he took seriously, but just at the prospect of talking about it with Leah Roth. This was especially true because the case had a connection, albeit a tenuous one, with Roth Properties.

His clients, a grandmother and grandson named Dolores and Rafael Nazario, were residents of the Jacob Riis housing project on the far eastern edge of Alphabet City. That project was receiving a radical makeover into mixed-income housing, a hugely ambitious transformation in which Roth Properties was partnering with the city. The eviction was based on the grandson getting arrested for smoking a joint outside his project. He’d been busted not by the cops, but rather by private security guards who’d been patrolling around the ongoing construction work.

Rafael had pled guilty to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from the weed, not realizing that doing so would open the door to eviction proceedings. Rafael insisted that the whole thing was a lie, that he hadn’t actually been caught smoking pot, although Duncan didn’t necessarily put a lot of stock in the denials, especially since they were being made in front of his client’s grandmother.

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