Robak in Black

by Joe L. Hensley

Published by St. Martin's Minotaur

256 pages, 2002

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Better Judgment

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Every once in a while, a truly distinctive voice emerges in the field of crime fiction. Joe L. Hensley has such a voice, and a fine introduction to it can be found in Robak in Black, the latest entry in his series about wily Indiana circuit judge Don Robak.

While Hensley's flat Midwestern tone is far from elegant, it rings true. Robak's first-person narration is a compelling mixture of sharp observation and fearless self-awareness, presented in the slightly stilted tone so often heard from men who rise from working-class origins to professional success. It's initially off-putting, this bald writing; so is the way Robak has of telling a bit of his story, then going back over it again -- just the way, you soon realize, that most of us do when something is worrying us. And when Robak in Black opens, there's plenty bothering Judge Robak, with much more to come.

His wife, Jo, is in the hospital, her health and mind possibly destroyed by a mysterious fever and infection that none of the local doctors can identify. Blood and other samples intended to be mailed to the Centers for Disease Control and additional outside testing agencies have mysteriously disappeared, along with the young woman responsible for the hospital's mail system. After three weeks spent at Jo's bedside with their high-school-age son (also named Joe), Robak realizes that he'll have to search on his own for the cause, and perhaps the cure, to her illness. He's convinced that his spouse -- a cheerful, unpretentious housewife who served on the library board in their hometown of Bington -- was targeted by someone unhappy with one of his judicial rulings. But that hardly narrows the field. "I sniffed the air of Bington, revenge in mind, looking for any faint track that might remain out there for me to discover," Robak tells us. "I had many enemies."

A wife-killer he'd sentenced to 50 years in prison has recently been pardoned by the governor and released. Damon Darius Wolfer, the leader of a bizarre quasi-religious cult community known as The Farm, is demanding that he be allowed to take the place of his son Sweetboy, who Robak has just sentenced to death for the gruesome murders of two preteen girls. Robak is also about to preside over a huge civil-damages case, brought by stockholders against the town's major employer, Macing Drugs. The judge is facing reelection, and he's locked in petty combat with three county commissioners from the opposing political party ("Larry, Curley and Moe"), who refuse to repair leaks or fix the heating problems that plague his courtroom.

Fortunately for Robak, and for the reader, he also has some friends -- all of them skillfully drawn. Though Hensley has used these characters in previous Robak novels, he resists the glib tag lines that so many series writers employ each time they trot forth their regulars. We gradually learn that bailiff Wade "Preacher" Smyth has retired from careers in academia and alcoholism. Now, frail but sober, he has a fascination for literature and religion. Court reporter Evelyn Hass emerges as a crusty courthouse veteran. She's loyal to Robak but is nevertheless known to wince in open court when she thinks he's made a bad decision. Robak trusts a few fellow judges, plays poker with the sheriff and a couple of lawyer friends, and confides in the Reverend Morris "Mo" Mellish, a black gospel preacher who could be the Midwestern cousin of Walter Mosley's Mouse character -- a compelling amalgam of heartfelt loyalty and sociopathic menace.

Along with these friends, Robak relies on a single-shot truncated Winchester 12-gauge shotgun he keeps under the bench ("I'd tried out the shotgun a few times on the police range and it had kicked harder than a losing client"). As an attorney in Bington, Robak had once witnessed the courtroom murder of a judge by a husband infuriated that his wife -- Robak's client -- had been granted a divorce. Robak took a bullet himself, but didn't go down until he had managed to grab a counsel table chair and whack the gunman to death. (Readers whose curiosity is piqued by the brief reference to this incident can read the full story in Robak's Run, 1990.)

In an era replete with hip, neurotic, self-absorbed sleuths, Robak is a guy you want on your side. He's a stern but unpretentious judge ("The only time I always wore the robe was in juvenile hearings. Kids needed it and it gave me at least a chance they'd listen to me") and, though faithful to his wife, is far from priggish. When pharmaceuticals heiress Libbie Macing appears at his house, demanding to rekindle their youthful affair, Robak admits he's tempted.

Early in the book, Robak brings Jo home from the hospital, only to have a sniper fire into their house. After that, local nurses are afraid to work for them, so he moves Jo to a nearby nursing home and sends their son to stay with relatives in Chicago. There are signs that someone is prowling outside the house at night and death threats appear in the mail. Sheriff's deputies escort the judge to and from his office, but no arrests are made. Robak begins his own investigation into his wife's mysterious illness, and when the Reverend Mo appears midway through the book to assist him, this rural thriller goes into high gear.

My bailiff Preacher, who'd met Mo, agreed with me that Mo was intelligent. He'd added that he and Mo did not read, remember, or preach from the same Bible.

Mo had read and now remembered his versions of Bible stories where sins drew harsh and quick punishment. He believed in a judgment Bible.

Preacher owned a God that forgave, a God that obeyed his orders.

Mo's God exacted vengeance.

Robak soon narrows his list of suspects down to cult leader Wolfer and Libbie Macing. From opposite extremes of the social spectrum, they're both ruthless leaders with cadres of followers willing to do their dirty work. Robak's escalating confrontations with The Farm annoy the local FBI agent, who is also investigating the cult. He wants Robak out of his way. "I believe you've spent most of your career after law school running around this part of Indiana acting like someone out of a bad Perry Mason movie," he sneers.

Robak is positive that the cult is plotting a courthouse bombing patterned after the one in Oklahoma City -- but he's still not sure they're the ones responsible for Jo's illness. There's too much disquieting evidence that points to Libbie Macing, with her unhealthy obsession with Robak and her easy access to her laboratories' dangerous viruses and experimental drugs. Robak's frequent visits with Jo, who is barely able to recognize him, are never sentimentalized. She's a mess. And sadly, though she doesn't remember her husband, she seems to remember Mo. Each scene with Jo is a reminder of the viciousness of the criminals they are seeking to expose and prepares the reader for the book's chilling ending.

The perils of writing a thriller are legion -- from hyperbolic prose to an inconvenient pileup of dead bodies that beggars belief -- but author Hensley squeaks past with the grace of an attorney winning a case by virtue of a well-spotted loophole. You're not quite sure how he did it, but you want to applaud. Hensley, who's been crafting Robak stories since 1971 (Deliver Us to Evil was the first entry in this series), is in a class with masters like Archer Mayor, K.C. Constantine, Sue Grafton and James Lee Burke when it comes to capturing the menace of small-town conspiracies and the courage of a small-town sleuth. | February 2002


Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine.