- - Thursday, March 17, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

VIOLENT CRIMES: AN AMANDA JAFFE NOVEL

By Philip Margolin

Harper, $26.99, 304 pages

Getting into a fight in a bar can be risky, and the moral of this thriller is that it is especially inadvisable to take on a former Navy SEAL The example of Tom Beatty offers indisputable evidence.

Ask Harold Roux the local bully with the broken nose, dislocated shoulder and shattered knee who wouldn’t accept an apology for spilled beer in an Oregon bar from a soft-spoken young man with a military haircut who felt terrible about the whole thing. Not only that but the court agreed that it wasn’t his fault.

Philip Margolin has written more suspenseful thrillers than this, but perhaps none that hinged on someone like Beatty, who is a basically minor character yet dominates the few pages in which he appears — as Mark Hammond, a slick lawyer with a broken nose and severed ear tip can testify. (One should never underestimate the power of someone with SEAL training). Beatty is a quiet, polite paralegal at an upscale Oregon law firm and he is genuinely shocked at the damage he does to his opponents because he has skills you don’t want to know about. That is what he was taught when he was doing dangerous work in the military. As one of Beatty’s doctors explains, “In combat you kill. There is no mercy because in addition to defending yourself you have to look out for the other people in your unit. [Beatty] kept striking Roux until he was convinced that no threat existed.”

Which makes it all the more ironic that Beatty winds up being pursued by hoodlums and finding out that the well-tailored lawyers for whom he works and whom he admires are a bunch of corrupt crooks up to their ears in illegal dealings in oil and coal. Beatty is accused of killing Christine Larson, the lawyer who helped extricate him from his barroom brawl and he is nothing if not loyal to those who are his friends.

Including Amanda Jaffe, another upright attorney who is shocked at her discoveries about the dealings of the firm for which she works. Especially its senior partner Dale Masterson who is “tall and patrician looking with clear blue eyes and a Roman nose.” However, as the plot moves through blood-spattered pages, the handsome Masterson is not only beaten to death but his killer is suspected to be his son Brandon, a ranting, unwashed environmentalist who says he is helping to save the world. Those who aren’t murdered are beaten up, and Amanda is saved by Beatty from two men threatening her with torture when all she is doing is trying to find the ex-SEAL in a pokeweed patch in Oregon. It should come as no surprise to the reader that those who threaten Amanda do not go unpunished. What else can Beatty do?

The casualty list grows, especially after Beatty’s foes accuse him of being a drug overlord in Afghanistan during his time there and portray him as a drug peddler to prostitutes in Oregon. This leads to another dead body when the prostitute is foolish enough to betray the criminals who pay her. What is intriguing about the book is that it is the presence of Beatty that takes it beyond a hard-bitten legal thriller where the people are exactly what you expect them to be, except some are worse than others. Beatty might be considered a tribute to his previous military employers, as a quiet and deadly figure who is more than a match for his enemies. Yet all he wants is a quiet life in law.

The only gimmick in the plot comes unexpectedly from Amanda who suddenly comes up with an unlikely answer that resolves who committed at least one of the killings. And as it turns out, there is nothing she can do about it. She is even sympathetic to the murderer who has seen the error of his ways, or so Amanda hopes. But what she knows she cannot do is go to court.

There is a happy ending for Beatty, who is still watching sports at this favorite local bar where the bartender is his great admirer. He is a quiet and popular figure and it is generally agreed he did everyone a favor by his reaction to the obnoxious Mr. Roux. The fancy law firm isn’t doing so well, but Amanda has moved in with her boyfriend.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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