Rosenberg, Charles. Long Knives.

Seattle: Thomas & Mercer, 2014.

I’ve never heard of this author, which isn’t really surprising since this is only his second novel. He’s a Harvard Law School grad (and editor of the Law Review) with a long career as a litigator and law professor, so I guess we can trust him to get all the nuts and bolts right in a legal novel. His abilities as a fiction author are something else altogether.Jenna James used to be a front-lines litigator who got fed up with it all following the big trial in Rosenberg’s first novel (which I haven’t read) and became a professor instead at the UCLA law school. In fact, with absolutely no experience in such a specialized field, she becomes something of an expert in admiralty law. Then one of her students, who says he wants her to look at a treasure map he and his brother own, falls ill in her campus office after drinking her coffee and dies shortly thereafter. Whodunit? Well, the suspects come and go through the book, though there never seems to be a good case against any of them. But the furor puts Jenna, who is trying to get tenure, on the hot seat and her cause isn’t aided by the fact that the professor in the next office hates her guts. The plot revolves around Jenna’s confused attempt to prove that it wasn’t her, and that she was the killer’s target herself.

I had to work at it to summon up any sympathy for Jenna much of the time. She’s demanding, extremely self-centered, distrustful of everyone, loses her temper and picks fights in a way that no working litigator would ever allow herself to do, and has a very large blind spot when it comes to her irritating effects on others. She can’t imagine how being caught up in a murder investigation — being, in fact, one of the police’s favorite suspects — could possibly have an impact on her tenure chances. Are you kidding me? How can an experienced attorney be that naïve about the way the world works? Part of the problem may be that I have seldom found a male novelist who can successfully create female protagonists. (Oddly, it doesn’t seem to work the other way, as there are any number of women writers who have invented extremely well realized heroes.)

The author’s narrative style is pretty rough, frankly. He needs to work on how people communicate colloquially in real life. People on the faculty at UCLA, for instance would not refer to the university medical center by its full formal name in every conversation with each other. After the first time, to make sure the reader understands the reference, I’m willing to bet that a mention of “the medical center” or “Reagan Medical Center” would be more realistic. And in a three-way strategic planning meeting between Jenna, Oscar, and Robert, nearly every time one of them speaks to one of the others, he uses their given name. That’s extremely unnatural and an experienced author knows how to work around it. He over-describes constantly; it takes him a lengthy paragraph to say that Jenna walked into her office and sat down at her desk. He has a tendency to break the classic rule, “Show, don’t tell,” attributing extreme feelings to people of which the reader has seen no evidence.

He also has a lot of difficulty with pacing, and in the use of common plot devices. Several times, startling incidents occurred which any astute reader would take to be a shift in the plot, or at least a red herring. The bicycle crash, for instance: Was it a set-up? An attempted murder? Nope, just an accident, which Rosenberg tells you almost immediately, but which he then spends a lot of time on, though it has nothing whatever to do with the actual story. How about the toppling library stacks, which Jenna not unreasonably thinks is yet another attempt on her life? Apparently just a coincidental earthquake. Finally, Jenna doesn’t even become a serious suspect (after being told by the lawyer whom she tells us is the best in town that the police had no further interest in her) until the last fifty pages. In fact, most of the tension and nearly all the real action is crammed into that last ten percent of the book. Finally (and this is the one point where I have to question Rosenberg’s expertise), I think it very unlikely that the UCLA police — the campus cops, that is – have ever had the authority to investigate a murder case, as they apparently do here, though the LAPD comes along for the ride once or twice.

There are some not-bad bits here and there, but on the whole, this was a very frustrating and wince-producing book to read.

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Published in: on 27 October 2014 at 5:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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