Book Review: The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg
One of the genres that I’ve often had trouble “getting” is that of the crime/procedural (which was why I had problems with both Zoo City and Empire State). In terms of my reading habits, then, my enjoyment of Robert Rotenberg’s books is an outlier.
Old City Hall was Rotenberg’s debut, and The Guilty Plea picks up right where it left off, with many of the same characters. The premise here is similar to that of the first book: someone has been found murdered, and the various characters work together to push the case through the city’s legal system – the cops gather evidence and the lawyers pore over said evidence to bolster their arguments in the courtroom.
In this case, the victim is Terrance Wyler, the youngest son of a prominent family who owns a successful grocery store chain. When Samantha Wyler – the woman whom he was in the process of divorcing at the time of his death – shows up at her lawyer’s office with the murder weapon wrapped up in a kitchen towel, the case looks all but solved. However, the detectives and lawyers we met in Old City Hall – Greene, Kennicott, Summers, Raglan, and more – aren’t content to sit on their laurels and let the obvious conclusion do all their work for them. Papers still have to be filed, and people still have to be questioned.
This attention to process is a great part of why I like Rotenberg’s books. In essence, they are about more than just The Law or The Case: they are about competent people doing difficult tasks, and doing those tasks well. Rotenberg also delves into the psychology of people who become involved in a criminal case. In the trials, his lawyers analyze how witnesses gain and lose credibility in the courtroom; during the investigations, his cops pick up on subtle cues like people using rhetorical questions to respond to interrogations.
Within The Guilty Plea, specifically, I was impressed by the care which Rotenberg took to reintroduce the reader to characters from the first book, remind us of what they did, and place them in the context of who they interacted with. It served not only as a refresher course for the cast list, but also prepared me for the shifting perspectives across the book. On top of that, expert attention was paid to reintroducing the city of Toronto as a character as well – the streets and highways and neighbourhoods of the city reflect as much upon the plot of Rotenberg’s books as the people do. This focus on the city serves as one heck of an ego boost for a lifelong Torontonian like myself.
Despite these strengths, this book is not perfect. Like Old City Hall, it ended with the person on trial being innocent despite overwhelming evidence against them, with the real killer being suddenly revealed in the final pages. I understand that this is meant to increase the tension, but I don’t think that “whodunit” is the point of Rotenberg’s books.
Instead, I think the point is showing the process behind a criminal investigation, and the psychology behind preparing for trial. I want to hear more about the considerations that come into play when jurors are selected. I want to hear about the small things that affect the credibility of people testifying in court – things like witnesses not knowing where to place their coats, or being engulfed by the sheer size of the witness box. In Rotenberg’s world the courtroom is a psychological tango, and dammit, I want to understand the footwork involved! Last minute revelations of this sort cheapen the reading experience.
On top of that, some of the plot developments were poorly thought out. During the trial, Samantha was revealed to have had an extensive secret correspondence with Terrance’s brother Jason, her brother-in-law. This is the sort of thing upon which trials turn on a dime, but I was incredulous that 1) Samantha would have hidden this information from her own defense lawyer, especially when it could have bolstered her claims of innocence, and 2) so little follow-up research of email transcripts and phone records was done afterwards. Furthermore, although a noticeable portion of the novel was spent explaining what happened to the murder weapon, nowhere was it ever stated (unless I didn’t notice, which would be odd), that the damn thing was dusted for fingerprints. Isn’t that Rule #1 of murder investigations – to thoroughly examine the murder weapon once its location is confirmed? Why didn’t that happen here?
Finally, I wish that Rotenberg would set his books so that they could take place across all of Toronto, and not just the downtown core. Speaking as a frustrated suburbanite, it would be really nice to see a book that actually paid attention to the part of town that I live in, instead of the same litany of major downtown locations and corridors.
The thing about The Guilty Plea is that it follows in the footsteps of its predecessor closely, for good or ill. I hope that in subsequent installments, the strengths (good characters, good psychological insights, detailed settings) will increase and the flaws (downtown-centric focus, convenient revelation near the end of the book that the obvious suspect is not the real murderer) will diminish.
Up next: Leviathan Wakes, by James S.A. Corey