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Gods and Fathers by James LePore

Gods and Fathers by James LePore (The Story Plant, 2012) is a roller-coaster ride. It may not get into the Guinness Book of Records for being the longest ride at a relatively short 272 pages, but it sure does produce high-class thrills. In a book sitting on shelves marked thriller with sub-genres in legal and political, that’s all you can ask for. So what’s it about? As the title suggests, this is mainly about families with a focus on fathers. The families involved straddle religious divides between Christendom and Islam, and within Islam between Sunni, Shia and the factions. On the barricades between families and their faiths, emotions run high, feuds persist over time and the desire for revenge is inexhaustible. Also in play are the countries. At the heart of all social contracts between citizens and their state is the notion of parens patriae: a fundamental public policy that the sovereign is parent to all its citizens and will step in where necessary to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

To show he means business from the first page, James LePore introduces Matt DeMarco, a tough attorney in his first major case, an honour killing. You can’t get more controversial in that even the Islamic mainstream disapproves, characterising it as an unfortunate survival from tribal cultures. The year is 1993 and our hero is given the task of running the first major trial in New York. The difficulty in such cases, of course, is that the lead attorney necessarily becomes a political player. The decision to prosecute is setting down a marker for the local community of a change in policy. From now on the intention is to treat this form of domestic abuse as a mainstream crime. This is the sovereign state of New York asserting its parental duty to care for wives and daughters at risk. For better or worse, Matt DeMarco does not hold back. He’s not into neutrality. He wants the result. When the jury convicts, a son faces sentencing for the murder of his sister.

We now jump forward to 2009. Matt is divorced. His wife has married Basil al-Hassan, a wealthy Syrian businessman who’s now stepfather to Matt’s son, Michael. When his girlfriend Yasmine Hayek is found shot dead, the first rush of evidence suggests Michael is guilty. With money no object, Basil gets a top firm to represent his stepson. Because of potential conflicts of interest, Matt is unable to remain in the prosecutor’s office. As the investigation continues, we learn there’s a lot more to this killing than meets the eye. There’s a United Nations investigation team on the ground and the CIA has an interest. When the first NYPD officer falls in the line of duty, interests coincide. Matt finds himself more at home with the homicide and other detectives he’s known over the years. They have to find a way of working through the political minefield to get enough of the truth to save those involved from further harm.

As background, President Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000. A controversial moment came in 2005 when Rafik Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, was assassinated. There’s long been suspicion this death was ordered by Syria. The extent to which this death should be investigated by the international community was considered. As always there were strong differences. Some countries routinely promote a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of another sovereign state. At the other end of the spectrum, states promote universal justice and the need for the guilty to be brought before the International Criminal Court. These are difficult issues for America because it’s against the notion of any supranational court asserting jurisdiction over its own citizens, particularly those acting in a military capacity. Yet it also wants to deal with Syria as one of those states more directly involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This makes the Syrian connection to the death of Yasmine Hayek even more difficult. Add in the fact that her father, Pierre Hayek, had secretly been a member of a Christian militia responsible for a savage attack on a Moslem ghetto and the State Department, Justice and the CIA prefer Michael to plead. That allows them a relatively free hand. If charges were dismissed and Syrian nationals were to be implicated. . .

By the time we’re done, bullets, RPGs and bombs have left their marks. That’s the one thing fathers have in common. If you threaten their children, they get emotionally involved. If one of them like Matt has military training, he can be more effective than the usual parent. With the covert backing of the NYPD, the results might surprise the governments of the states and countries involved. For all this is a relatively short book, it manages to pack in both a lot of action and enough background so we can understand the characters as people. None of those more directly involved are simple stereotypes. We’re allowed the see shades of grey and the complexity of situations. While it may not say that much about the political and moral implications of events, Gods and Fathers does enough to make this a superior legal and political thriller.

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

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