After reading Write to Die, I went ahead and grabbed a few more of Charles Rosenberg's books, looking for the same sort dense legal thrillers that John Grisham writes. Rosenberg, also a lawyer/author, is detailed and meticulous, if less dramatic than Grisham. Rosenberg's books seem unlikely to become blockbuster movies, though they could certainly be filmed as L&O episodes, or Lifetime or T&T movies.
These three books each stand alone, but reuse main characters, so they are a series of sorts. The main character, Robert Tarza, starts out as a senior civil litigation attorney at a Big Law firm in Los Angeles, and reappears in each book, though in the second, he takes a back seat to Jenna James, who was the secondary protagonist of book one.
Death on a High Floor
Lawyers killing lawyers in Los Angeles.
Thomas & Mercer, 2011, 562 pages
On the 85th floor of a glittering high-rise in Los Angeles, Robert Tarza steps into the lobby of the Marbury Marfan law firm to discover his partner Simon Rafer lying in a pool of blood - an ornate dagger plunged into his back. Robert had worked with Simon for decades, and their relationship was fraught with conflict. But he never imagined he would wind up as the prime suspect for his colleague’s murder. As the evidence stacks up against him with frightening speed, he quickly falls from his respected position to that of a criminal dragged through the tabloids. With a growing suspicion that he’s being expertly framed, Robert digs into the evidence to clear his name. In the process, however, he uncovers a web of fraud among his closest associates. As time runs out, Robert must uncover the real killer or be prepared to go to prison for murder.
If you are looking for lots of action scenes and sensational cases, this is probably not your kind of book. Rosenberg is a lawyer and he writes like a lawyer. His characters are lawyers and they talk like lawyers. The plot winds its way through legal minutiae - keeping it plain enough for a layman, but not just skipping ahead to the "good parts" of the trial.
In Death on a High Floor, we're introduced to Robert Tarza, a 60-year-old partner at law firm Marbury Marfan, who arrives at work one morning and finds one of his fellow partners lying dead in his office with a dagger in his back. After calling the police, more details emerge, and Tarza winds up being the prime suspect. After a lot of dialogue with fellow lawyers, he makes the somewhat unbelievable decision to let a junior associate in his firm, the pretty, perky, whip-smart, but, um, completely inexperienced in criminal law Jenna James, represent him in what becomes a first degree murder trial. Jenna is not flying completely solo, as technically she is second chair to Oscar Quesana, an independent criminal defense attorney and a real "character," who will also reappear (somewhat superfluously) in the next two books.
The murder plot revolves around a rare Roman coin that may or may not have been a fake. The detective work of the first half of the book turns into courtroom drama in the second, as Tarza actually stands trial.
This book will be enjoyable to fans of Law and Order. Indeed, it read like an extended episode of L&O. The ending even came with a rather cliched dramatic twist, the sort of confessional breakdown that is popular in legal dramas but almost never happens in real life.
This book was not exciting, but it wasn't boring either. Rosenberg is comfort reading for a certain kind of nerdy reader who once upon a time fancied he might like to become a lawyer. The writing is plain and the characters not always sympathetic (aside from facing trial, they're all rich, smarmy lawyers), but it was a page-turner and kept me wanting to read more about these characters.
Unfortunately, the first book was the best in the series.
Murder on the UCLA campus, as Jenna James strikes out on her own.
Thomas & Mercer, 2014, 504 pages
Jenna James’ life has been smooth-sailing since she left the high-powered law firm of Marbury Marfan. She’s happily ensconced as a professor at a prestigious law school, where she’s well liked by her students, coupled up with a handsome colleague, and on track for tenure. But things take a shocking turn one morning when a student, Primo, comes to Jenna’s office seeking her advice about a treasure map he recently inherited. When Primo turns up dead and Jenna is suddenly the prime suspect in a murder investigation, everyone turns on her. Desperate for help, she calls on two old friends: Robert Tarza, her old law partner from Marbury Marfan, and Oscar Quesana, an odd-duck solo practitioner. The three race to save Jenna’s career - and perhaps her life - in this whip-smart thriller of treasure maps, murder, and law school politics.
You are probably familiar with the corollary of Sayre's Law that states that "academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small." Long Knives, taking place mostly at UCLA, tries to deceive us as to the stakes involved (there is a treasure map as a MacGuffin and even a Da Vinci Code-like search through libraries in Italy for clues), but ultimately it proves to be all about the long knives of bitter, petty academic feuds.
Taking place five years after Death On a High Floor, the main character of Long Knives is Jenna James, formerly Robert Tarza's junior associate. Jenna, we learn, quit the Marbury Marfan law firm soon thereafter, much to her mentor's disappointment. They have been estranged since then, and Jenna is now teaching law at the UCLA law school. She has a successful career, is up for tenure, and is dating a fellow law professor who also happens to be rich.
Jenna is actually teaching a class on Admiralty Law, and so has researched a lot about sunken treasure, the laws of salvage, and the business and difficulties of mounting expeditions to go searching for lost ships. This establishes a reason for a young Italian student to come to her office with, supposedly, a treasure map, giving the location of a sunken and as-yet unlooted Spanish galleon, asking for advice.
Jenna leaves briefly to take a phone call. When she comes back, the student has been poisoned. He's taken to the hospital, later dies, and Professor James suddenly finds herself the subject of both a civil lawsuit and a criminal investigation, both of which are severely complicating her tenure bid.
Unlike the previous book, this one never comes to an actual trial. Instead, we're given an "informal" trial in which a university grievance committee, under the guise of hearing a fellow professor's complaint about Jenna, effectively turns into a murder trial. Supposedly, "establishing the truth" as to whether or not Jenna actually killed her student is crucial to determining whether or not her colleague's complaint is valid (and consequently, whether or not Jenna deserves tenure). The set-up for this is technically possible but a little hard to believe, as is some of Jenna's behavior. Meanwhile, her friends Robert and Oscar from the previous book have their own chapters investigating everything from old Spanish treasure maps to Jenna's academic enemies.
This was an enjoyable book, and better than the third book, but not as good as the first. While the series is referred to as the "Robert Tarza" series, Tarza is really a secondary character in this one. I found Jenna to be, frankly, rather unsympathetic. Believable, but unsympathetic. She more or less "likes" her wealthy boyfriend, but clearly does not love him, despite the great sex, and debates whether she's willing to "settle" for him because he's rich. She gets very emotional and irrational at times and tends to be a jerk, even to friends and family. This makes her complicated and certainly anything but a perfect protagonist, but sometimes I thought she needed a good hard slap.
Intrigue in Paris over rare books.
Thomas & Mercer, 2015, 396 pages
Lawyer Robert Tarza is surprised when his young, beautiful and wealthy French girlfriend, Tess, proposes marriage. It's not that he doesn't love her, but even after five years, there's a lot about her he doesn't know.
But Robert has to put his personal life on hold when his friend Oscar Quesana shows up outside Tess's Parisian apartment clutching a mysterious package, with a thief hot on his heels. Oscar has somehow acquired a priceless old book.
When Robert and his former protégée, Jenna James, see Oscar shoved into a car and abducted, they find themselves entangled in unexpected intrigue. Robert, Tess and Jenna must quickly determine who is friend and who is foe in order to rescue Oscar before it's too late. Along the way, Robert might just make some astonishing discoveries about those he holds dear.
The third book in the series stars Robert Tarza again. Taking place shortly after the previous book, we're back to Robert and his love life. After he retired for good from the Marbury Marfan law firm, he moved to Paris to live with his super-rich younger girlfriend, Tess. Tess, who appeared in the previous book to help Robert acquit his friend Jenna James, proposes marriage, amidst a certain amount of intrigue over her mysterious high-level contacts with the French government.
Paris Ransom is not so much a legal thriller as a more conventional thriller. Robert and Jenna's friend Oscar Quesana, improbably, winds up in Paris as well, and gets kidnapped because he supposedly possessed a rare book signed by Victor Hugo. Robert, Jenna, and Tess try to figure out how to rescue him. There is relationship drama between Robert and Tess, and a lot of running around in France and learning about French customs and police practices. There is not actually any French courtroom drama, though inexplicably several chapters switch to the POV of a French judge involved in the case, I guess to give some perspective on French legal and investigative proceedings.
Overall, this book felt like a slump and was slightly disappointing. I wanted more legal drama and instead, it was about the cast of the last book getting together for wacky hijinks in Paris. It was entertaining enough, but very light, and I think our legal trio's adventures have been pretty thoroughly played out now.
Verdict: I'm happy I've discovered Charles Rosenberg's legal thrillers, but I'd have to say that he's best when he's actually sticking to courtroom thrillers and not inventing elaborate justifications for "investigations" that are not actually trials, to accompany a murder mystery. The three Robert Tarza books are all good light reading, but only the first is really heavy on legal drama, while the next two are mostly just excuses for lawyers to run around solving mysteries.
Also by Charles Rosenberg: My review of Write to Die.
My complete list of book reviews.