- Ron Liebman
- Simon & Schuster
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
- July 18, 2011
In this entertaining novel, two stand-up cops-turned-lawyers are rough around the edges yet unusually skilled at defending the bad guys.Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
Reviewed by Lawrence De Maria
“The trouble with law is lawyers.” — Clarence Darrow
“If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers.” — Charles Dickens
The rallying cry of lawyer bashers has long been Shakespeare's quote from Henry VI Part 2: "THE FIRST THING WE DO, LET'S KILL ALL THE LAWYERS."
Lawyer jokes outnumber dumb blonde jokes — it must be a living hell for blonde lawyers — and the legal profession may never distance itself from ridicule. But not many people know that the Bard was actually praising lawyers. Dick the Butcher, the character who uttered those words, believed lawyers posed a threat to his tyrannical leader, Jake Cade. With a name like Dick the Butcher, he was shortsighted; he probably needed a dozen Johnnie Cochrans.
Many of the lawyers who populate Jersey Law, Ron Liebman’s entertaining new novel, court death. None deserve that, of course. But an occasional disbarment might be nice.
Liebman’s protagonists, Mickie Mezzonatti and Junior “Junne” Salerno, deserve neither death nor disbarment. Though flawed and often flummoxed, these two ex-cops turned Camden law partners always try to do the right thing. And more often than not, it works.
"There are no doubt more qualified lawyers around here,” Junne notes. “Most probably across the river in Philadelphia. But know what? Me and Mickie have got them scratching their heads. They're thinking, How come those two guys keep winning their cases?”
Jersey Law is narrated by Junne. But it is not a typical first-person thriller, in which protagonist and reader discover clues as they go along together. Incidents are often described by other characters. Although this structure forces Liebman to give a lot away, he maintains tension through the use of parenthetical asides that hint at future surprises. A typical Junne rumination: “(Turns out I’m right. And I’m wrong. But we don’t learn this until later.)”
Unfortunately, Liebman’s use of parenthetical comments is one of the book’s main weaknesses. There are so many (dozens and dozens) one suspects he could have saved a lot of type by just using one at the beginning of the novel and one at the end. (Parentheses, of course, can be both useful and quirky, but not when they distract — like the ones in this paragraph.)
There is a plot, although readers are never quite sure where it is headed. That presents less of a problem than it might because the author, a Washington, D.C. litigator, has populated Jersey Law with so many fascinating characters, the main one being Slippery Williams, an ambitious, intelligent and ruthless ghetto drug lord. He is Junne and Mickie’s client, friend and potential murderer. It goes without saying that anyone who can be all three should not be overbilled.
Slippery is in a jam. Prosecutors are closing in, hoping to use a conviction to launch their political careers. Junne and Mickie owe Slippery a favor; he saved their lives in one of the author’s earlier books. So, they feel obligated, even though they know a misstep might force the sentimental but ultimately practical Slippery to kill them now.
Slippery, of course, is guilty as hell, as are most of Junne and Mickie’s clients in Jersey Law. But he has a code that puts him higher in the reader’s estimation than many of the lawyers that swim in and out of Liebman’s narrative. Some are stupid or incompetent; others totally corrupt. As noted, Junne and Mickie are no saints. They have personal, professional, and sexual conflicts that complicate their lives. But they always show up ready to fight and their clients are lucky to have them in their sordid foxholes.
And there are many foxholes. Junne and Mickie must not only defend Slippery. They must try to save Sami Khan, an Indian entrepreneur cornering the market in cheap electronics in Camden. He hasn’t been paying his taxes and the government wants to send him away for a generation or two. The case is a “referral” from Slippery, who wants Sami acquitted for reasons that soon become clear. Our boys must also defend Arty Bernstein, their lawyer-landlord, who has broken so many ethical strictures that even the Garden State’s somnolent bar associations can’t save him from prosecutors. And then there is Gregory, the surly nephew of their legal assistant, Tamara, who pursues a life of crime undeterred by the spine-shattering bullet that put him in a wheelchair.
Too many subplots? Actually, no, since they are all interconnected — from the first jailhouse shiv to the last shooting.
A word about the writing. Liebman’s book contains every stereotype imaginable: ghetto gangbangers, Jewish lawyers, Italian men — and their moms, Irish cops, noble black women, ignoble black lawyers, shady Indian shopkeepers, jaded judges, snotty WASPS, equally snotty immigrant wannabes, and a few others. Presumably so many people can be offended that none will. The cast of caricatures, except for the minorities, resembles one of those American platoons in a World War II movie, all pulling together to defeat the enemy. Of course, the enemy in Jersey Law is the law itself, or rather, its perversion by criminals and attorneys. The book’s ghetto patois is particularly entertaining. Is it accurate? Maybe, or maybe not. Someone once asked Robert B. Parker how much research he did for Double Deuce, the Spenser novel that takes place mostly in a Boston housing project. Parker said none. He made the ghetto dialect up, arguing that such talk is unfamiliar to most readers and changes so quickly that nobody would care.
Although this is a funny book, many readers may ultimately be depressed by what Jersey Law says about the legal profession. But they should be comforted by the fact that there are surely plenty of Junne Salernos and Mickie Mezzonattis out there ready to battle the system.
A final word to author Liebman. To paraphrase a mobster who would be right at home in New Jersey: Lose the parentheses, keep these two lawyers. _ Lawrence De Maria was a senior editor and writer at The New York Times and Forbes. His many Page 1 articles led the Times’ Pulitzer-nominated coverage of the 1987 stock market crash. He is currently living in Naples, FL, where he writes short stories and novels, as well as book and film reviews.