The melancholy is almost tangible when you pick up the book. There is no way to explain exactly why, but it could be that having the title and the author’s name in all lower case letters brings back memories of e.e. cummings’ poetry. It could be that the dust cover liner notes start out, "Defense attorney Joseph Antonelli is a stranger to defeat. Inside the courtroom and out, no one can resist his persuasive power."
High acclaim for our hero to be. No defeats in the courtroom. A perfect record. Those are the essential elements of the purest of legal fiction and an indication that reality is nowhere to be found. In buffa’s first novel, we learn that the author was once a real defense lawyer in Oregon who now lives in San Francisco.
John Grisham, Steve Martini and James North Patterson. They all were real lawyers before they became unreal writers. And we have one more in buffa. They all bring different styles, textures, colors, plots and characters to us. Sometimes, the least realistic wins.
Such is the case with the defense. Antonelli is a handsome, intelligent, fairly moral and entertaining attorney who defends the guilty and the innocent with equal, or should I say unequaled, success. Suffice it to say, he’s somewhat like a James Bond of legal mystery heroes.
Antonelli’s mentor is Judge Leopold Rifkin, an eccentric who reads and quotes from Socrates. Life moves along as it should for Antonelli until he visits Rifkin one afternoon in the shadow of Mt. Hood where Rifkin chides him for never losing. Then Rifkin asks him to defend a man who raped the man’s 12-year-old step-daughter.
Johnny Morel is a despicable person. Barely human. He is one of the most difficult clients Antonelli has taken on, but the case is compelling. Morel’s lie detector test shows he lies when he claims he did not commit the rape. Morel’s wife, Denise, claims he did not do it. Antonelli’s investigation leads him to wonder for a time, but he ultimately concludes his client’s guilt is for the jury, not him, to decide.
Through misdirection, slick tactics and skillful examination of Michelle, the victim, Antonelli convinces the jury that Morel is not guilty and he walks free. Antonelli has been successful once again. Some time later Johnny Morel is murdered, and his wife is accused of being the killer. She asks Antonelli to take her case, offering him money, sex and the true story of how guilty her husband was of raping her daughter, Michelle. Antonelli declines to take the case.
While Antonelli has been perfect in his defense work, he has not been as successful maintaining romance. Just when he is not looking for it, love finds him in the form of Alexandra Macauley, a paralegal in his law firm. He knows nothing about her because she works for the civil defense lawyers. Just as their relationship gets started, Antonelli’s old friend, Judge Rifkin, is found standing in his house over the dead body of, who else, Denise Morel.
The Morel family floats in and out of the plot and every time one of them enters Antonelli’s life, it does not bode well for him. Does Denise’s death signal the end of the Morels’ influence on Antonelli’s existence. Not at all! The real defense begins as Rifkin is brought to trial for Denise’s death and Antonelli represents the judge. All the while, Alexandra is working her way deep into his heart.
The final twist may be predictable, but while it lingers in the back of your mind, the reader is not sure where the novel will end. Will Antonelli finally be as successful in love as he has been in the courtroom? What happens to Judge Rifkin? Those are questions for you to answer.
Is the book worth reading? It is well written for a first novel and has a depth of description and development of character that is surprising. The superficial flawlessness of the main character carries with it an undercurrent of emotional maturity in the same way there is wisdom in knowing one is a fool. What is the defense? It depends on who is being defended, but only one is unsuccessful. It is Antonelli’s success in Morel’s defense that leads to his one, heartbreaking failure. Unfortunately for Antonelli but fortunately for the reader, there is no real defense to deception. The verdict here is for the defense.