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Ice Cap by Chris Knopf

In the dim and distant past, I had some passing acquaintance with the practice of law and, cursed with some understanding of how legal affairs are actually conducted, I always approach books about legal eagles with some degree of scepticism. In a recent posting on the excellent Locus site, Cory Doctorow enlarged on his consistent frustration when science fiction movies fail to represent the “reality” of science. The main question when you read a book or see a film, is whether you want the content to have the characteristics of a documentary, i.e. to communicate a real understanding of the world or the people in it, or is fiction inherently unrealistic, peddling dreams, showing us the world as authors think we want to believe in? So, just as our stereotype of laboratories is one of these chromium-steel plated, Swedish minimalist spaces where product placement experiments are performed, courtrooms are full of drama with lawyers jumping up and down shouting, “Objection”, witnesses cowering under cross-examination, juries looking attentive and judges pounding their gavels for the Hell of it. As if!

This makes Ice Cap by Chris Knopf (Minotaur Books, 2012) such a joy. It has a lawyer essentially acting like a PI, working out of a converted bedroom as an office, and never actually setting foot in anything approximating a courtroom. This is a major breakthrough and should be copied by all authors who currently choose to believe lawyers lead exciting lives in their offices and feel an adrenaline rush every time they breathe the same air as a judge and jury. Chris Knopf has the right idea. You abandon pretence and write a thriller PI novel where a person who can actually think investigates a murder. For the record, this is the third outing for this lawyer cum investigator, the first two being Short Squeeze and Bad Bird.

Chris Knopf before his transformation into a first-person female attorney

As a headline, this is a great book. It’s written in a highly engaging style, full of sly wit and telling phrases. So, even before you get to think about the substance of the content as a legal thriller-style murder investigation, you have the simple pleasure of reading some excellent prose. As to the mystery itself, it starts out with the advent of winter in the sub-Armageddon style — full Armageddon would never dare fall on the rich folk who live in the Hamptons. As you will understand, this is not a minor dusting of snow. This is major and prolonged precipitation. As is always the case, the telephone rings with the desperate voice of a client, Franco Raffinni, asking for urgent hand-holding. This takes our heroine out on to the road.

At this point, we need to break the rhythm of the review by briefly talking about a man writing a first-person narrative with a female protagonist. Meet Jackie Swaitkowski, a person who likes stimulants, mostly in the form of alcohol but with the occasional reference to pot when, for professional purposes, she needs to remind herself of the smell — just think of the embarrassment should she be with a client smoking something without a prescription when there’s a drug raid. Anyway, apart from worrying about her clothes, this is the usual PI who’s a bit of a slob, shoots back when guns are fired and is not averse to a little sexual activity when the opportunity arises. She’s a bit like V I Warshawski including the odd trip to the opera and, to my male eye, I saw no problems with the gender shift in the writing.

As to the plot, this is a classic case where all the evidence seems to point to our heroine’s client but, if that’s the case, why are there two different sets of muscle threatening her? Why is she supposed to allow her client to go down for a murder he so obviously committed and not investigate? The answers (note the plural) are ingenious with a whole can of worms emerging from the various snow drifts when swept aside by a sufficiently powerful plough (driven with élan by another woman who appears on the scene called Dayna Red). I thought the way in which justice was seen to be done was particularly pleasing — particularly since we never actually had to test any of the evidence in court (some of that evidence would clearly not be admissible).

Overall, Ice Cap is an unpretentious fun read with a first class mystery to solve. If you enjoy attorneys literally fighting for their clients as told by an author who’s obviously enjoying himself in the writing, this is a book for you to treasure.

For reviews of other books by Chris Knopf, see Cries of the Lost and Dead Anyway.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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