The Judgement, William J. Coughlin

St. Martin’s, 1997, 424 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-96244-4

A courtroom drama element which drives me nuts is how attorneys can spend months of their time on single cases. How their lives can revolve around a single client from sunup to sundown. While this may very well be true for corporate lawyers or Johnnie Cochran Jr., most lawyers are usually stuck dividing their time between multiple competing priorities.

While I’ll be the first to acknowledge that my reference pool in crime fiction is very shallow, William J. Coughlin’s The Judgement is the first novel I’ve read that convincingly represent the life of a small-town attorney in what seems to be a convincingly realistic fashion, complete with glamorous and boring clients, big and small cases. Heck, The Judgement even features two strong parallel cases that don’t even relate to each other!

It is first and foremost a novel of character. The narrator, Charley Sloan is an ex-big-shot attorney. Once one of Detroit’s judicial stars, Sloan hit the bottle once too often and found himself sliding down the social scale. Now, years later, he has re-established himself in a small town, away from the spotlights and comfortably sober. As The Judgement begins, Sloan is happy, solvent and engaged in a good relationship, yet slightly bored. Excitement walks in his office in the form of Mark Conroy, a top Detroit policeman under fire from accusations of corruption. Sloan is warned that high-level political corruption might be involved. He takes the challenge. In the next pages, he’ll be bugged, threatened and bribed to drop the case.

His biggest challenge, however, comes from another direction: In his small quiet town, a serial murderer strikes, and young children are the target. His girlfriend is on the case, but it’s Sloan who will be most affected.

In addition to these two cases, Sloan has to account, as a small-town attorney, of a variety of other cases, serious and not-so-serious. His narration is clear, amusing but not without tense segments. Sloan gets to interrogate witnesses, hack the law, call in a few favours and generally give us a good time.

The Judgement is an admirable crime thriller, told with crisp economy and considerable skill. The story moves well and makes for compulsive reading. The whodunit is not particularly difficult to figure out, but don’t worry: The book’s most memorable moments are character-driven, whether it’s quirky supporting characters or a personal depiction of a major lapse back in addiction. If nothing else, The Judgement gives a convincing look in the inner working and meaning of addiction support group. Among other things.

Interestingly enough, while fact-checking this review on Amazon’s entry for this novel, I found a note by someone claiming to be Coughlin’s son, alleging that The Judgement was posthumously written by a ghostwriter and not by Coughlin, who died before the book was published. Internal evidence shows that the novel itself is copyrighted “1997, Ruth Coughlin”, but further Internet searches don’t show any other supporting material. While I’m not discounting the statement, it doesn’t really matter; The Judgement is a fine novel, ghost-written or not. Worth a read, anyway.

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