For the Defense, William Harrington

Pinnacle, 1988, 508 pages, C$5.95 mmpb, ISBN 1-55817-303-X

Let us be brutally frank: Pinnacle Fiction has never been known as an editor of fine literature. As far as publishers go, it’s definitely a second-tier house, known nationally but not with the name-recognition of Bantam, Pocket or the other big-names. At least it’s a real publisher and not a vanity press. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to recall at least one author published by them.

Even as an avid reader, my database lists only three of their titles, all very average genre fiction book. For the Defense is a surprising little exception to the norm, an enjoyable piece of legal fiction as gripping and amusing as anything I’ve read in the genre lately.

It has the good fortune of starring a bigger-than-life heroine. As the novel begins, Cosima Bernardin is a young lawyer in a high-powered New York legal firm. She’s got everything lined up to succeed. In the first chapter, though, she’s asked to cede control of her most visible client -a rock group- to her senior partners. She not only refuses, but quits and decides to establish her own law firm in direct competition with her old colleagues. A few plucky lawyers join her fight, and For the Defense is the story of that David-versus-Goliath fight.

Everyone is sucker for such a story, but For the Defense wouldn’t be half the novel it is if it wasn’t for the gallery of fun characters introduced in its pages. Even weeks after reading the book, some of the minor characters resonate more strongly than the protagonists of other novels read subsequently. Cosima herself is a wonderful heroine; a female protagonist with a good control on her destiny, unbounded ambition and considerable skills.

She’s surrounded by rock stars, a ballerina, a frightfully powerful father, a senator sister, actors and actresses as well as other lawyers. There’s a lot of casual sex in this novel; Cosima herself sleeps around with a few men during the course of the novel, but to Harrington’s credit this never seems like an exploitative technique. (You know, like those so-called “feminist” male authors who just really like to play around with a wish-fulfilling promiscuous heroine.)

Harrington’s writing is crisp, clean and compulsively readable. Cosima’s legal cases overlap and compete for her attention, but our own attention remains rigidly focused on what she’s doing. I was particularly impressed by For the Defense‘s ability to juggle multiple storyline, some of them impacting other, and some of them remaining stubbornly separate.

I was also impressed by the versimilitude of the legal manoeuvring in the novel. From the author’s note (“I have the privilege of being a member of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York.”), we can assume that Harrington is a professional of the field, and his experience in such matters really shine through, as is his talent to vulgarize complex notions.

Most of all, even though this is “merely” trashy genre fun, there is a definite pleasure in reading such novels from time to time; protagonists all get what they deserve, and that goes for antagonists too. For the Defense‘s universe is a richly moral one, and a contemporarily moral one too. Casual sex is acceptable, but sexism definitely isn’t!

A compelling heroine, memorable characters, a boffo against-all-odds premise, convincing background details, clear writing… is there anything else we’d want from a genre novel? I don’t think so, and that’s why I recommend For the Defense if ever you can find it.

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