August 01, 2005

BOOKS: In the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt (2005)

Our setting is the prestigious D.C. law firm Morgan Siler, and we follow several of the firm's partners and associates through two of their cases. There's a Virginia death penalty appeal that the firm is handling pro bono, and a Texas class-action suit against a chemical company whose negligence may have led to the death of several employees in a toxic fire.

But this is not your standard legal drama, and there's relatively little courtroom action. The legal stories that make up the novel's plot are de-emphasized to the point where they are merely a background against which the real business of the novel plays out.

That "real business" is a finely written series of character studies of the Morgan Siler lawyers. We meet everyone from obsessive senior partner Peter Morgan all the way down the legal food chain to new associates Katja Philips, still giddy with idealism about the nobility of the legal profession, and Ryan Grady, who is just beginning to realize what havoc the hours of a first-year associate are going to play with his constant womanizing. These are crisp portraits, and Roosevelt's characters are vivid and realistic.

While the novel feels more literary than most legal thrillers, Roosevelt also does a fine job of laying his plot details into these character studies, and he's very good at planting details early on that will pay off later in the book. The legal details of each case are smoothly presented, and Roosevelt is never backed into a corner where he has to dump a 3-page block of clunky exposition on us.

In the Shadow of the Law is both a terrific legal drama and a solid piece of writing; Roosevelt is every bit as good as Scott Turow. Recommended with great enthusiasm.

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