Thursday, 26 March 2015

Special Circumstances by Sheldon Siegel

I read a wide variety of genres as a matter of course. I have never felt constrained to any one particular type of fiction but instead rely on my mood to influence my choice when looking for a new book to read. In this particular instance I was attracted to Sheldon Siegel’s legal drama ‘Special Circumstances’ as a Kindle promotion. Previously I had read and enjoyed Barry Reid’s ‘The Verdict’ back in the 1980’s. It was turned into a successful film starring Paul Newman by director Sidney Lumet. I have also enjoyed John Mortimer’s ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ series, but that really does not help as ‘Special Circumstances’ is set in San Francisco rather than London.

Being English I have no first-hand knowledge of the American legal system. It seems an institution curiously similar and yet fascinatingly different to what we have here. All that I do claim to know about it is based on knowledge accrued from watching movies and television dramas, and reading novels. Law is complicated no matter where it is practised, or so it seems, but I found Sheldon Siegel’s style of writing very easy to read. The more esoteric and obscure legal terms are defined by the lead character Mike Daley in a conversational manner that makes using Google largely redundant, which is a good thing because it meant that I could lavish more time and attention on the book instead. This approach gives the book an inclusive feel. You do not need to know the law in great detail so the reader can become immersed very quickly in the story, and what is the story about?

It is unremarkable in all honesty but then this might be because it focuses more upon the trial and its impact on the main characters. A double murder has taken place in the offices of a prestige law firm on the very evening that the protagonist, Mike Daley, is leaving after failing to make the grade as a partner. Very quickly his friend, Joel Friedman, becomes the prime suspect and Mike’s very first customer. There is nothing new here, Joel pleads innocence, his wife and children are devastated, his reputation becomes tarnished as unsavoury truths about the Rabbi’s son surface and all the circumstantial evidence begins to point his way.

There are no surprises in the themes being examined here; greed is obvious, along with subterfuge, hypocrisy, the ugly side of ambition, and the impact of sudden death. They are all the staples of the legal drama but what really matters is how the author uses them to tell the story. In this respect Sheldon Siegel does very well. The law firm of Simpson and Gates employs enough people to represent all of the aspects of lawyers that make them both loathsome and fascinating as objects of entertainment in whatever media you prefer. Crucially none of them become pantomime villains, their baseness remains very human.

I enjoyed the actual process of the court hearing itself. Some readers have complained that it was too long but I do not agree. Personally I found it fascinating to follow the procedure from beginning to end without any obvious abridgements; at least to my English perception that is how it seemed. In the past I have criticised supposed science fiction novels for failing to include any notable science or simply to make vague references to obscure theories in order to justify events within their pages. I could not imagine such an approach working in a legal drama. To have any integrity the novel must suggest to the reader that at the very least the author knows what they are talking about. It is this kind of sincerity that separates the real writer from the ‘wannabe’. To that end I found ‘Special Circumstances’ totally engaging.

There was one area that I would have liked to see expanded upon and that was the actual murder itself. It never felt like Mike Daley got his hands dirty in that respect. I accept that this might not be too realistic an expectation in a trial lawyer but this is a novel and a little artistic licence can go a long way. This is certainly true when doing so adds to the suspense and excitement of the story.

In conclusion I found ‘Special Circumstances’ to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. The clarity of the writing made for an engrossing experience. I was entertained throughout, surely the most important reason for reading for leisure? I intend to return to Sheldon Siegel’s Mike Daley in the future when I feel like immersing myself in another well written legal novel.

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