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A newly minted lawyer gets a capital case in a cliched courtroom drama.

The Neon Lawyer

Thomas & Mercer, 2014, 178 pages

With money and hope in short supply, newly minted attorney Brigham Theodore decides it’s time to lower his standards. He joins a seedy fly-by-night firm in Salt Lake City out of desperation. After he loses his first case - a speeding ticket - he’s convinced his career is over. But to his shock, his boss hands him a slightly more complex case: capital murder.

Brigham’s new client is Amanda Pierce, a lost, exhausted woman who gunned down the man who tortured and killed her six-year-old daughter. A jury may prove sympathetic to her unbearable pain, but the law is no fan of vigilante justice - and neither is Vince Dale, the slick and powerful prosecutor who’s never lost a murder case. There’s no question that Amanda pulled the trigger - she did it in front of five witnesses. If she pleads guilty, she will avoid a death sentence, but saving her life this way comes with an admission that what she did was wrong. However, if she refuses the “guilty” label, Brigham will have no choice but to fight for his career - and Amanda’s life.

A legal thriller set in Salt Lake City with a protagonist named Brigham Theodore raised my eyebrows — for some reason, Mormon authors have a heavy presence in science fiction & fantasy, but I wasn't aware of many Mormon legal thrillers. Notwithstanding the allusions, however, the LDS is never mentioned in this book, and while Brigham does hint at his belief in God now and then, he certainly doesn't appear to be particularly religious. Indeed, his defining character flaw is a hot temper that almost gets him into trouble several times, both in and out of the courtroom.

Brigham is freshly graduated from law school. Like a lot of young lawyers, he graduated from an undistinguished school with a ton of debt into a glutted market, and so finds himself initially having to keep his janitorial job. After persistently knocking on doors all over Salt Lake City, however, he is hired on a piecework basis by a grubby lawyer who runs some sort of boiler room legal operation. You "kill what you eat." Here Brigham meets a slightly introverted cast of characters, except the love interest, a hot lady lawyer who's way out of his league on several levels, so of course you know he'll end up sleeping with her.

After a couple of unimpressive first cases, Brigham winds up being given a murder case. This seemed a little implausible, but he is working for a tiny, hardscrabble firm, so we're supposed to accept that his boss didn't have anyone more important to give such a loser of a case to. Amanda Pierce, in a scene out of a Lifetime movie, gunned down the man who raped and killed her six-year-old daughter right on the courthouse steps.

As a legal thriller, The Neon Lawyer was so-so. I like legal details, and Victor Methos (another lawyer-turned-author) doesn't stint on courtroom procedures and a bit of legal education, though the book is not heavy with infodumping. His characters were a little bit cliched - Brigham Theodore, the idealistic young lawyer who's living on ramen and coffee, Amanda Pierce, the sympathetic, grief-stricken mother, Vince Dale, the arrogant, pitiless D.A., and Molly, the hot love interest.

This was a quick and entertaining read. There was one big problem I had with the story, however...

I was rooting for a guilty verdict.

See, we're obviously supposed to sympathize with Amanda Pierce. Her little girl was abducted, raped, and killed by a monster. The details are gruesome enough to make it absolutely clear that Amanda shot the right guy, and that he deserved it. So yes, I sympathized with her. And the DA, who goes for the death penalty (even though we know a DA would almost certainly not seek the death penalty in such a case) is portrayed as a heartless bastard who only cares about winning, not justice.

Except as heartless as his argument was, it was correct: Amanda Pierce picked up a gun and decided to be judge, jury, and executioner herself. Even though the culprit had already been arrested. We have laws against vigilante justice for a reason, and Brigham Theodore's entire case was pretty much that anyone else would have done the same thing, the bastard deserved it, so we should let her go. There was a fig leaf of mental incapacity offered as an argument, but really, the defense was essentially that mothers should be allowed to kill men who rape and kill their daughters. As appealing as this argument might be, it really can't be accepted in a civil society, and most juries wouldn't accept it.

I will not spoil the book by telling you what the verdict was, except to say that the ending is something of a punt. I was engaged in Amanda's trial and Brigham's tribulations as a wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, but The Neon Lawyer was a bit weaker than some of the legal thrillers I've read recently, with a good story but lacking a bit in development.

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