It’s a Mystery: “Evil for evil’s sake is an invention of man”

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First, Kill the Lawyers
By David Housewright
Minotaur, 2019

The title of this witty, irreverent novel comes from a line in the second part of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” uttered by Dick the Butcher (who lives up to his name in every way) to Jack Cade, a Kentish Laborer. Cade has been ordered by the Duke of York to incite a rebellion at home, which gets him killed by the Royal forces. It’s become one of Shakespeare’s most quoted and misinterpreted lines. Shakespeare, as many scholars have verified, was not suggesting that killing lawyers would make the world a better place. In his time, it was attorneys who were protectors of the truth and if you want to become a dictator the first thing you have to do is get rid of them.

As the novel begins, five prominent Minneapolis attorneys have had their computer systems hacked and very sensitive case files stolen. The attorneys are then contacted by an association of local whistleblowers known as NIMN (Not in Minnesota) and are quietly alerted that they have received these documents from an anonymous source who threatens to post the incriminating case files online. If those files are released, it will not only ruin those lawyers but it might even destroy the integrity of the entire Minnesota legal system. So they turn to P.I. Holland Taylor and his inimitable partner Freddie Fredericks with an aggressive, take no prisoner’s directive: stop the disclosure any way you can.

To get answers they must dive into the five cases covered in the files—divorce, bribery, class action, rape and murder. The big question: what connects them all? The common denominator that Freddie and Taylor uncover in record time is the wildly dysfunctional family of self-made millionaire Robert Paul Guernsey. As his son’s ex-wife tells Taylor:

“There’s the Guernseys and then there’s everyone else. They live above the rest of us….if we had lived somewhere else besides Axis Mundi we might have made a go of it. Only there’s something about the place that drains the soul out of these people….”

“What is Axis Mundi?”

“That’s the name the old man—Robert Paul—that’s the name he gave his estate. It means ‘center of the world.’ All of the Guernseys live there. The old man insists. He rules over the place like a feudal baron, controlling everybody’s lives.”

While Taylor and his partner are untangling the connections between the cases and families affected, the time before the files are released is running out. They find themselves trapped in the middle of what is legal and what is ethical.

The situation becomes direr as witnesses begin dying and Taylor’s life is threatened. In the end it all comes together like the bulletin board full of thread and pins that Freddie and Taylor keep to connect the many tentacles of the case.

First, Kill the Lawyers is a complex, beautifully plotted mystery. It is an often dark, frequently funny roller coaster ride of a read that you won’t soon forget.

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.