An Innocent Client
by Scott Pratt
Onyx (NAL), 2008
The incredible profusion in the last fifteen years of TV shows, movies, and books about lawyers has not, miraculously, glutted the market; readers’ fascination with the American legal system seems bottomless, which is certainly good news for anybody trying to break into that market.
Scott Pratt’s debut novel An Innocent Client, is a modest enough entrant to the world of the legal thriller; its crimes and characters are nothing fans of the genre haven’t seen many times before, its dialogue is smooth but not outstanding, and its end-of-the-book surprise is comfortably predictable. This is the story of small-town Tennessee defense attorney Joe Dillard, who’s yearning for the one innocent client of the title to be the capstone on a long career of defending the scum of the earth. Dillard has a strong-willed wife, a dented but intact set of morals, and, as the novel progresses, a client who just might be the innocent he’s been looking for. The book’s largely workaday manner is rendered distinct by two things: the strong Tennessee regional flair, and the benefit of Pratt’s years of working as a defense attorney himself.
That last has its drawbacks, of course, mainly an unfortunate tendency to cram atmospheric exposition into his characters’ mouths, as in this précis Dillard gives to one of his scumbag clients:
"I’ve been through all the evidence, including your background, Maynard. How about you and I get real with each other? You’ve spent most of your life in prison. Killed your first wife and got the charge reduced. Murdered some dude who was screwing around with your girlfriend and got convicted, served fifteen years. Killed at least two men in prison and got away with both those murders. As soon as you got out, you started hauling cocaine and meth. While you were at it, you sold and smoked and snorted practically anything you could get your hands on. Now you’ve killed and cut up a couple of teenagers. They can prove you tied the girl up and had sex with her before you shot her. They’ve got semen from her vagina; the DNA matches yours. They’ve got both victims’ blood all over that little house you rented. Got your signature on the lease at the storage space where you stashed the bodies. That was bright. Didn’t you think they’d start to smell after a few days? They’ve got the kids’ blood and your fingerprints on the chain saw you used to cut them up."
Just once, I’d like the client in a scene like this one to say, “I know all this. I told you all this. Why on earth are you repeating it all in such a stiff, theatrical way?”
But alas, although An Innocent Client has plenty of pleasures to recommend it, it doesn’t have that.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.