by William Bernhardt
Published by Ballantine
480 pages, 2001
Buy it online
A Sweetheart of a Lawyer Cuts to the Chase
Reviewed by Frederick Zackel
Silent Justice is William Bernhardt's ninth novel in the Ben Kincaid series. All nine feature the word "justice" in the title. This brand naming might be good marketing: readers can recognize a new title instantly. On the negative side, "Did I read this one?" can be an irritation.
In the first 57 pages of Silent Justice, a "loony" breaks into a law school class and takes hostages and -- in an apparently unrelated matter -- a 15-year-old junior high school student is executed in his sleep. His mother is then knee-capped and executed. His father then receives "sixty or seventy strokes" with a ball-peen hammer. Two others are shotgunned to death. Eleven children die from leukemia. Forty-odd passengers are burnt alive in a bus accident. And lawyer extraordinaire Ben Kincaid appears in court in a legal dispute about Pez dispensers and a six-pack of beer.
The litigation in Silent Justice is centered around "eleven sets of parents, all of whom had recently lost a child between the ages of eight and fifteen to leukemia." The only common denominators for this "cancer cluster" are the children's "air supply and their water supply."
The culprit behind this "microepidemic" appears to be the corporate giant, the H. P. Blaylock Industrial Manufacturing Corporation which contaminated the local aquifer with "traces of arsenic, chromium, lead, and other heavy metals."
Ben Kincaid comes to the rescue:
Ben listened to those stories and all the others. Each time he thought he had heard the worst, he found out he was wrong. Rarely in his life had he sat in a room in which the sense of tragedy was so palpable. These were grieving parents, mothers and fathers who had poured their hearts into raising their children, only to lose them due to something entirely outside their control. There could be nothing worse than that, Ben thought. Nothing at all.
Of course Ben Kincaid looks crazy for going up against a giant corporation. Christina, his office manager, calls it "unwinnable," "a kamikaze lawsuit." It may bankrupt the entire firm.
What raises the stakes is that the H. P. Blaylock Corporation is represented by Raven, Tucker & Tubb, which is not only "the largest firm in Tulsa," and "some of the best in the business," but also maybe the crookedest firm around. Kincaid tells his crew, "They know all the tricks in the business."
Raven, Tucker & Tubb are archetypal corporate lawyers -- paper pushers and moneygrubbers, to quote Kincaid, who have two acceptable "lawyer fashion choices:" the blue suit or the gray one.
Ben Kincaid has to tell the eleven sets of patients that "what you're asking me to do is file a high-profile lawsuit that we can't afford and can't win. To run up expenses with no hope of recovering them."
Because he's such a sweetheart of a guy as well as a champion of justice for the little guy, Kincaid takes the case. With a lump in his throat, he tells his firm, "I think we're doing the right thing here. Not the smart thing. Certainly not the safe thing. But the right thing. I think."
Bernhardt doesn't stint on his main character's home life, either. Naturally Ben Kincaid lives the workaholic life. He lives in a boarding house; Mrs. Marmelstein, his "landlady-in-name only," is slowly fading away from Alzheimer's disease and Kincaid -- because he is such a sweetheart of a guy -- has taken over "all the administrative duties attendant to keeping the house running -- paying the bills, arguing with the repairmen and occasionally supplementing the always-wanting petty-cash drawer" for her. As her Alzheimer's progresses, Ben Kincaid takes it upon himself to attempt locating her ne'er-do-well son in order to bring the two together.
Kincaid never stops being a sweetheart of a guy. When he comes home and finds his former brother-in-law, Mike Morelli, already inside Kincaid's apartment, "staring at a football game on the television," he doesn't throws the intruder out. I admit, at this development my suspension of disbelief did falter, and not just because my reaction at discovering my former brother-in-law has broken into my apartment would have been different than Kincaid's. When he asks Morelli how he got into his apartment without a key, the latter proves his integral importance to the novel's intricate plot by reminding the lawyer, "Hey, I'm a cop. I can get in anywhere."
Morelli the homicide detective will investigate the three grisly torture-murders which occur in the first 50 pages of Silent Justice and all of the others which keep happening like clockwork until the denouement. Morelli, too, is a sensitive soul, another sweetheart of a guy. At one of the crime scenes, for instance, "he avoided eye contact. He knew he wasn't fooling anyone.... But he had a professional reputation as a 'tough guy' to maintain, and he couldn't very well do that by vomiting all over the crime scene."
These brutal murders are essential to Bernhardt's plot, too, for the head of the deceased family in the first 50 pages -- as well as most of the killer's subsequent victims -- work for the Blaylock Industrial Machinery Corporation.
Myron Blaylock, the CEO and president of H. P. Blaylock, is a fine villain. His grandfather founded the company and Myron's self-righteous indignation that anyone "would even suggest H. P. Blaylock engaged in improper waste disposal" is almost believable.
Charleton Colby is Blaylock's chief legal dog at the Raven Tucker & Tubb law firm and is "generally considered the top litigator in the city, if not the state." This "bullyboy" loves the smell of money that this lawsuit -- "the biggest cash cow" in recent history -- will generate. In the courtroom, Colby is not just "first chair" or chief counsel; he surrounds himself with one junior partner, three associates and two legal assistants. He is a master of rhetoric and drama. He throws himself into work. His office buzzes with the news that "Colby had reportedly been billing time seven days a week, fifteen and sixteen hours a day." A dozen other associates "had worked on the case in one capacity or another."
Colby is also "the King of sound bites" and loves to play hardball. Bernhardt lets us wallow with him and the other legal bottom-feeders, too. Colby is, of course, "unethical," which is worse than having questionable ethics. Given enough money -- say, a small fortune in billings from a despicable corporate treasury -- and all those underling lawyers, Colby will stop at nothing to win. He will even "use blackmail to suppress a legitimate claim." In Ben Kincaid's view, Colby's tactics aren't "honorable. Profitable, maybe. But hardly anything to brag about." It's "dirty pool litigation."
Soon Kincaid realizes that, since this lawsuit began, "we've been reactive, not proactive. Plaintiffs are the ones who normally take the ball and run with it, but in this case, from the day it was filed, we've let Colby take charge. We've been his hostage." Time for the hero to fight back.
Of course the federal judge trying the case is also an obstacle for Kincaid and company. "I want the parties to know," the judge tells the court, "that although I am not in any way prejudging the present case or motion, my tolerance level for frivolous lawsuits is absolutely zero." That the judge is hoping for a berth at Raven Tucker & Tubb when he retires from the bench adds yet another obstacle to Kincaid's task. Of course the judge and Kincaid are both unaware that one of the judge's clerks is feeding insider information on the trial to executives of the Blaylock corporation and thus to Charleton Colby's law firm.
The verdict in this lawsuit will be all or nothing for Kincaid; a hung jury means he's out of business. While waiting for the verdict, Kincaid learns that the bank could wait no more, that it has filed a valid foreclosure lien with the sheriff.
While Kincaid is battling evil in the courtroom and chaos in his home life, his ex-brother-in-law Morelli is busy in parallel tracking the homicidal killer. The killer -- a worthy opponent and a truly dirty dog of a bad guy -- takes pride in his villainy, too. At one point, "the sick maniac" thinks, "There was a certain pride a man could take in this sort of work, he realized. To commit an act so horrible, at least by the standards of contemporary society, an act so vilified, and to get totally and utterly away with it -- well, one couldn't help but get a little egoboo out of that. They couldn't catch him. It simply couldn't happen. Wasn't within the realm of possibility."
In addition to the ball-peen hammer and other implements of murder mentioned above, the killer -- who also has "piercing green eyes" -- subscribes to the bizarre murder weapon of the month club: take the most ordinary utensil and use it to slaughter someone. At one point the killer uses "the humble corkscrew," telling the woman he is planning to kill, "You wouldn't run if you saw it coming. But in the right hands, it can be positively deadly. And best of all, painful." His sadomasochistic procedures are perfect for the space between her T1 and T2 ribs. "I also know that if I twist this corkscrew, slowly, between T1 and T2, it will not kill you. Not immediately." Later on he uses a portable battery charger, charger cables and a brass bed to "supercharge" the "brain cells" of another of his victims. The killer tells his victim, "It'll fry your brain like a poached egg." And then -- just to prove he's truly psychopathic material, "He laughed, loud and horribly."
Bernhardt is an accomplished writer. He knows how to use suspense for the most dramatic effects. The reader even gets to hear the thoughts of future victims as they wait for the stalking killer to reach them. Fred Henderson, another executive at Blaylock, "knew what had happened to Harvey. He knew who did it and why he did it. And he knew that Harvey's killer had not found that for which he was looking. Fred knew that for certain. Because Fred had it."
Bernhardt gets his licks in against the Blaylock corporation, too. "This Stepford corporation" with its "unctuous clowns" will threaten its employees if they speak out and reward them "if they toed the company line."
Bernhardt has a very visible dramatic sense, so readers don't have to wonder what a character's motivation might be. When a character is hiding some incriminating evidence during his deposition, for instance, his body language gives him away: "Trumball's hands were shaking so much that he lowered them out of sight and sat on them."
Bernhardt uses lots of dialogue to move along the action. Every sentence has a subject and a verb. There is nothing experimental about his prose. While it might not be considered lean, it is clearly functional.
Bernhardt is also generous to his readers. Ben Kincaid reminds us that "a trial lawyer's life, when the trial is on, was really no life at all." While he tells us about the drudgery, he skims the surface so that we don't have to endure that drudgery. Still, we learn, as Ben Kincaid says, "why this thing is called a trial."
Ben Kincaid does swim ultimately to the top of the waterfall. The denouement is deliciously satisfying and certainly not what anyone would expect. | April 2001
Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.