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Extreme Justice

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Bizarre. How better to describe the event that gets the action in William Bernhardt's latest lawyer novel started? A dead naked woman with a smile carved into her face falls off of a stage light onto a nightclub jazz band's piano player just as the show begins. Add that to the woman having been a former girlfriend of the night club owner before he was imprisoned for the murder of the woman's lover 20 years earlier, and the plot begins one of its many "loop-de-loops."

Ben Kincaid, the unlucky piano player and body catcher, is the central character who finds himself forced out of retirement from the practice of law into representing nightclub owner "Uncle" Earl Bonner. Uncle Earl is ultimately charged not only with the dead woman's murder but that of the band's saxophone player who is found dead in Earl's office with the telltale smile carved into his face.

The same gruesome "smile" was on the face of Professor Hoodoo Armstrong when his dead body was discovered many years before. Uncle Earl was charged with and pled guilty to the professor's death. Now, however, Earl proclaims that he is innocent of all the murders. The police, unpersuaded, elect him murderer most likely to receive Oklahoma's form of final justice—death by lethal injection. Ben tries his best to avoid being drawn into the case but his sense of fairness overcomes the legal fatigue that led him out of lawyering and into piano playing.

The reading is easy because the writing is clean and clear. There is nothing complicated about the way the story develops, and there are no really intrusive subplots. The characters are believable and fairly well-developed. All are interesting, even though at least one seems to appear in the story with no purpose other than to entertain.

The plot does digress at one point when Ben's former secretary, a fellow named "Jones," becomes involved in an Internet romance that leads to the introduction of Paula, a character whose placement in the plot is somewhat contrived. She allows the reader to get to know Jones, but her role in the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer does not ring true. In the chorus of characters, her voice is the only one that is somehow off-key.

Set in Tulsa, Okla., the story takes the reader from jazz bars to religious nudists colonies to oil refineries to gang-infested ghettos. At each stop along the journey is a piece of a puzzle that is plausible and engaging, even though there is little sense of urgency to put the big picture together. The book does not demand a breakneck rush to discover the answer to the mystery, although the ending is clever and worth the read. The story is more one of comfortable, easy development that lulls the reader into the belief that the killer will be easy to find. Only at the end does the magnitude of the surprise dawn on the reader.

Bernhardt has written other "Justice" novels: Primary Justice, Blind Justice, Deadly Justice and Perfect Justice, to name only a few. They share the same consistent, understated style that does the reader no injustice for taking the time to read them. Just as the heat of a summer afternoon in the Midwest radiates lazily off the pavement giving the impression that nothing exciting could possibly happen, two cars collide abruptly breaking the easy continuum of normalcy. So it is with Bernhardt's novels. Just as you wonder at the quiet easy pace, a jolt of excitement wrests you from reverie, and you're off to seek another clue. In this case, each clue leads ultimately to a justice so extreme you should not miss it. Passing this one up would be an extreme injustice.

Journal Date: 
Tuesday, September 1, 1998

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