Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein
Time passes slowly for reviewers as we move steadily from one book to the next, never quite sure what the next book will bring, always hoping that next book will be worth reading or better. It’s that hope of finding the diamond in all the rough that keeps us going. Something, nay anything, to break the monotony of the reasonable to the outright dire that are paraded in front of our eyes by professionally optimistic marketers. Well, the first of this year’s possible diamonds has just hit my radar. Corrupt Practices by Robert Rotstein (Seventh Street Books, 2013) is billed as the first novel featuring Parker Stern. I think it’s terrific but it will not be for everyone. Some will legitimately feel the theme is too explicit and not want to read it. So what exactly do we have?
Put simply, this is a book about family relationships. As a child, Parker proved to be photogenic and ended up in front of the cameras in some moderately successful films. This should have set him up for life but his mother and one of the succession of men who acted as surrogate fathers as he was growing up, found a way to work round the law protecting children’s earnings. At the age of fifteen, Parker sought emancipation and left his mother and his acting career behind. Finding he had some interest in the law, he qualified and was offered a job by Harmon Cherry, the de facto head of Macklin & Cherry, a reasonably successful firm of lawyers. As a litigator, Parker found his acting skills of great use and he was soon building a reputation for himself (and the firm). After a few years, the firm began to represent the Church of the Sanctified Assembly (a cult not unlike the Scientologists but without the SFnal core beliefs). This put a strain on the office. Parker threatened to resign and was only persuaded to stay when Chinese Walls were put in place to prevent him from ever coming into contact with the Church or its members. That work increasingly fell on Rich Baxter, a less than stellar but conscientious attorney. Everyone was surprised when he joined the Church. The other key players were Grace Trimble, the most intelligent but the least emotionally stable, Deanna Poulos a fellow litigator, and Manny Mason, the most intellectual. Everything moved forward well for twelve years until Harmon Cherry committed suicide. At this point, the firm imploded. It had been like a family for Parker but, for different reasons, they went their separate ways. Grace disappeared. Deanna opened a coffee shop. Mason joined the local university as a member of the law faculty. While Parker, who had related to Cherry as the father he never had, lost his nerve and found it impossible to go into court again.
Fast forward one year and Deanna passes on a request from Rich for legal representation. He’s in jail, accused of stealing seventeen million dollars from the Church. Out of loyalty, he goes to visit Rich who both denies being guilty and alleges that Harmon was murdered. Reluctantly, Parker agrees to take the case but before he need do anything, Rich apparently commits suicide in jail. The Church now comes after the estate for recovery of the missing money. With equal reluctance, Parker agrees to represent Rich’s old father. It seems he’s going to be forced to confront the demons of his own anxiety and take a case in court. Out of loyalty, Manny offers him a few hours teaching a final year option on advocacy to the current cohort of students. Only three sign on but one of them is Lovely Diamond, the daughter of a man who made his money out of porn and who knew Parker as a child actor. Each of the three students has to undertake a case under his supervision and Lovely wants to take a First Amendment case involving a woman who has published some very explicit short stories about child abuse on her website. This now has everything in place for the legal thriller to get into top gear.
The Church plays dirty and, when simple intimidation fails to work, it resorts to physical violence. After a minor brush with one of the “faithful”, Parker is very scientifically beaten and warned not to proceed with the case involving the Church. For very different reasons, Lovely’s defence of the “paedophile” author also proves challenging and, to his surprise, he finds he can make a positive intervention when his young apprentice gets into trouble on a pre-trial motion. He’s also relieved he can still be effective when taking a deposition from the man who “represents” the Church. Nevertheless, the prospect of a full trial is daunting. Were it not for the emotional support offered by Deanna, Manny and Lovely, he would have given up.
Parker is almost an unreliable narrator because he’s less than forthcoming with the readers as to precisely what happened to provoke him into litigation to break the custody of his mother. We’re left in the dark until about three-quarters of the way through when all is revealed. Needless to say, this places a completely different light on the relationships before and after his emancipation as a minor. The detailed backstory that emerges is perhaps not a complete surprise. There have been hints and some of Parker’s emotional difficulties as an adult would suggest this type of scenario. That said, you get the feeling Parker is finally coming to terms with his experiences and that he will be the stronger for it in the future.
This leaves me with praise for the quality of the plot which all slots together very smoothly, and considerable delight in the courtroom scenes. The author is a lawyer and he manages the neat trick of making some complex legal issues accessible for the lay reader. The only caveat which I need mention is the presence of some explicit language and descriptions of sexual activity. Personally, I found it all in the best possible taste, but if you find it difficult to think about the abuse of children, this may not be the book for you. As a final aside, the only slightly jarring note is that Parker falls in love with Lovely. This is an unfortunate drop into cliché in an otherwise highly original plot. Corrupt Practices is highly recommended to everyone who wants the best in legal thrillers.
For a review of the sequel, see, Reckless Disregard.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.