Wild Justice

by Phillip Margolin

Published by HarperCollins

384 pages, 2000

Buy it online







Law and Disorder

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Among crime fiction's numerous clichés, none is more familiar than the good, innocent and unjustly persecuted murder suspect. The man or woman who is charged with criminal behavior only because of conspiratorial connivance or police incompetence. The person with whom every reader is supposed to relate and whose rescue at the end of the yarn is designed to show that the justice system works after all.

By consciously playing against this cliché, Phillip Margolin distinguishes his work from today's landslide of legal thrillers. Rarely are his defendants angelic, and they may be guilty as hell. This theme was established in Margolin's second book, The Last Innocent Man (1981), which starred an ambitious and brilliant young Oregon advocate who -- feeling contrite after winning acquittals for a series of lowlifes -- jumps to the protection of a client he believes is cleanhanded, only to have that faith tested with each successive chapter. In his later novels, including After Dark (1995) and the best-selling Gone, But Not Forgotten (1993), Margolin's protagonists often find themselves representing people who, if they aren't actually villains, are certainly vile. It's a situation familiar to this Portland lawyer-turned-litterateur, whose quarter-century of defending clients in criminal court lends resonance and reality to his tales. As Margolin has insisted before, "a criminal defense attorney should represent anyone, no matter who they are or what they've been accused of doing."

Which isn't to say that it's easy for a lawyer to defend somebody he or she thinks is putrid pond scum. Or, worse, a remorseless murderer. Just ask Amanda Jaffe, the idealistic recent law school grad whose parallel struggles to make a reputation for herself and also make sense of serial homicides form the foundation of Margolin's latest reticular plot, in Wild Justice.

Returning to Portland to work in the firm and shadow of her renowned attorney father, Frank, Jaffe is drawn into the defense of a talented but arrogant -- and familiarly violent -- surgeon named Vincent Cardoni. An anonymous tip to the cops originally leads them to suspect that the doctor is purchasing cocaine from a notorious local drug trafficker (and dealer in human organs). However, he becomes a significantly more prominent problem after police detective Bobby Vasquez discovers a pair of severed human heads neatly bottled in the basement of Cardoni's mountain retreat. Nine corpses are found buried nearby, all showing "evidence of torture." Although Cardoni insists that "someone is framing me" for this horror -- perhaps his estranged wife and fellow surgeon, Justine Castle -- the case against him seems overwhelming; police even find a videotaped record of one woman's torture. It is only due to Vasquez's overzealous efforts at proving Cardoni's misdeeds that Jaffe and her dad eventually find the means to overturn the case against their client. Then, free again, the surgeon promptly disappears, leaving his attorneys satisfied with their win... but more than a little uncomfortable with Cardoni's return to the streets. Amanda Jaffe asks her father:

"Do you feel bad now?"

"Do you hear me bragging about our victory, Amanda? As a professional, I'm proud that I did my job. As an officer of the court, I feel good about exposing perjury by someone who is sworn to protect us and uphold the Constitution. What Vasquez did was inexcusable. But I'm also a human being and I'm worried. So I pray that Vincent Cardoni is an innocent man who has been wrongly accused. If he's guilty, I pray that this experience has frightened him so much that he won't hurt anybody else."

Frank gave Amanda's hand a squeeze.

"This is not an easy business, Amanda. It's not easy at all."

Now, jump ahead four years, to the night when a much more experienced Amanda Jaffe is awakened by a phone call from Dr. Justine Castle, asking for help. It seems that sheriff's deputies have found Castle fleeing a grisly scene eerily similar to that which almost landed her ex-hubby on death row. Again, the evidence seems damning. And once more, the suspect declares herself the blameless victim of a set-up, only on this occasion, Castle pins responsibility on Vincent Cardoni -- a man now rumored to be dead. Could there be a copycat killer abroad? Has Cardoni returned from the grave to ply his grisly trade? Or have the Jaffes and the cops been wrong all along about the serial killer's identity? Can Amanda Jaffe penetrate the prevarications before she becomes the latest casualty in this dark drama?

An engaging wordsmith, particularly adept at leavening his suspenseful story buildup with humorous courtroom episodes (likely inspired by his own adventures before the bar), Margolin also boasts an enviable knack for misdirection. This may have been best demonstrated in After Dark, with its "gotcha" dénouement, but Wild Justice has its own share of hairpin plot turns. By two-thirds of the way through, both Cardoni and Castle are as unlikable as any character from an Ayn Rand novel; either one would make a satisfactorily sadistic slayer. Amanda Jaffe's employment of Bobby Vasquez, a man hungry for redemption after his misbehavior in the Cardoni fiasco, as her investigator in the Castle matter adds more fine complications to this tale.

What's disappointing is that Margolin so clearly telegraphs the solution to this mystery well in advance of its closing chapters. Only Ms. Jaffe has an excuse for ignoring the elephant-sized clues, and once she does figure it all out, her shock seems inadequate, her subsequent behavior incredible. After working so hard to avoid courtroom-thriller clichés, Margolin resorts in the end to a Hollywood action cliché that will have his fans shouting "Objection!" | September 2000


J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.