A Killer’s Kiss
by William Lashner
Published by William Morrow
336 pages, 2007
Reviewed by Cameron Hughes
Man, I hate legal thrillers. They’re just so awful. And there are varieties of awful, too! There’s Small-town Lawyer Standing Up for What’s Right, there’s Small-town Lawyer Who Is Smarter Than the Corporate Bullies, and then there’s my favorite, Big-shot Lawyer Sees the Light and Fights for the Little Guy/Lost Cause. Bonus points if there’s a plucky minority member involved.
Tell me I’m wrong.
So thank goodness for William Lashner, the Philadelphia trial lawyer turned novelist, who probably noticed all of this and has since been proving, rather quietly, that legal thrillers can actually be cool, that they can be character driven and smart and funny as hell. A Killer’s Kiss, his seventh book (after Marked Man, 2006), is easily his best thriller yet, featuring greedy loser and professional reject Victor Carl.
This tale starts out simply enough: Late one night, the local cops rouse Carl, a Philadelphia defense attorney, from the bed he’s sharing with a woman named Julia. It seems they suspect him of being involved in the death of a Chestnut Hill millionaire, Dr. Wren Denniston, and the disappearance of $1.7 million. What we find out only after the police have left is that Julia is the dead man’s wife, and that she had broken off her engagement to Carl years earlier to marry the good doctor instead.
Naturally, as all of these facts are discovered, Victor Carl becomes the favorite suspect of Philly’s finest.
It’s Julia Denniston who makes this story great. She could so easily have been your average, boring femme fatale. But Lashner is a better writer than to give that to his readers, and even though Julia commits some vile acts on the way to saving her own skin, Lashner skillfully makes us feel for her. He lead us to understand her actions and why Carl sticks his neck out so far to save her. Muses our hero:
Lashner, through his protagonist, never judges Carl’s ex-fiancée. There is always a way to understand her, a layer of Julia that we could identify with; and in a way, this extends to all of his characters. Elsewhere in these pages, for instance, in a desolate shack that harbors an illegal club serving some of the finest food Carl has ever tasted, a black street kid proves to be a pretty competent detective. And the attorney’s hulking partner is featured in a hilarious coming-out scene in which Carl and some other guys reflect on lost loves in their pasts. If you don’t look beyond that first layer of personality, Lashner argues throughout his yarn, you’ll never see what’s really in a person.
I confess, at one point I thought I had the mystery at the core of A Killer’s Kiss figured out. I felt so clever, and Lashner was fair about leading me to the answer. He offered up all the clues, and the players were well laid-out. It seemed so simple. But then, just as I was feeling smug, our not-so-average femme fatale, very drunk, says to Carl:
That’s a chastisement delivered not only to Carl, of course, but also to folks who -- like yours truly -- weren’t looking past the first layer of this plot. Lashner challenges his readers to question seemingly obvious answers. Carl finds that his own nice and neat solution to the millionaire’s murder isn’t so neat, either. As complications including Eastern European mobsters, a burned-out drug addict with the looks of a Greek god and a nearly 20-year-old high-school play and teenage romance gone horribly wrong all enter into this story, seemingly clear waters are made suddenly and deliciously murky.
That damn first layer has so much housed beneath it.
Victor Carl is such a terrific series character. Since he was introduced in Hostile Witness (1995), he’s grown progressively, and in A Killer’s Kiss, he discovers truths about himself and his past and his various hang-ups that he couldn’t grasp before. He’s not The Brilliant Little Lawyer, or The Big-shot, but he’s something in between. His ethics are realistic and measured on a sliding scale, and he wants money and recognition, like just about everyone else in the United States; however, he’ll still go to the ends of the earth to do right by his clients. Carl has so many outs available to him in this novel. He could leave the fetching Julia to hang, and other characters offer him chances to exit his troubles, as well. But Carl has a curious desire to do good when he can, and he never follows through on any chance to flee. In Kiss, this brings him into contact with bizarre losers, forces him to face his hang-ups on women and relationships, and almost leads to his messy death, brought on by a crazed mobster wielding a knife. Carl winds up as an incredibly interesting player in a subgenre that’s crowded with cliché characters. You want him to win the day, if only because he’s such an appealingly flawed figure -- morally ambiguous, without being downright sleazy; a do-gooder whose armor is pretty darned tarnished and broken.
The City of Brotherly Love shines under Lashner’s pen, too. He writes about Philadelphia with an obvious affection, accepting it for what it is, never shying away from its bad aspects, such as the burg’s rampant racism. As Lawrence Block has done with New York City, Lashner makes a not-unreasonable case for his owning Philly in the crime genre.
In one of my favorite passages from these pages, Carl reflects on how badly damaged the human heart can be -- and how, if you let it, that damage can easily go unrepaired:
It is so easy to write a mystery or thriller that means little or nothing, that leaves no lasting impression in the reader’s mind. Therefore, it’s particularly delightful when someone such as William Lashner steps up to bat and blasts one clear out of the park, as he does with A Killer’s Kiss. He’s challenging other writers to step up their own games -- if they can (or are even willing). He should be rewarded for showing that he understands what it’s like to be human and flawed, and that he can create a world and a cast of characters that are so fresh and funny and multidimensional. In a genre that too often makes millionaires out of writers who are willing to churn out soulless junk, factory-like, it’s refreshing to know that an author such as Lashner understands that a mystery or thriller isn’t worth jack if there’s nothing beyond that first layer. | August 2007