“Gone Again: A Jack Swyteck Novel”
Author: James Grippando
Price: $26.99 (Hardcover)
Each year the UA School of Law and the ABA Journal sponsor the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, given to a book which “features the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.” This year’s finalists have been announced and I thought it might be fun to review the three novels. You too may want to read them and then vote for a winner at abajournal.gov. Voting closes June 30.
James Grippando is a best-selling author with 23 novels. “Gone Again” is the 12th Jack Swyteck novel.
Swyteck, who practices in Miami, is the son of a former governor of Florida, which has its usefulness and its downside, too. Politicians make enemies as well as friends. In “Gone Again,” Swyteck has rejoined the social justice firm Freedom Institute, where he used to practice. The Freedom Institute works to prevent executions and reexamine death penalty cases which appear faulty in some way: suspicious evidence, failure to use DNA, client represented by ineffective counsel. Civic virtue abounds.
He returns a little reluctantly because, although the work there had been satisfying, Jack left to establish a private practice which is now thriving. Money is of some consideration because his wife, Andie, an FBI agent, is about to have a baby and the pregnancy is difficult.
On Swyteck’s first day back, Debra Burgette walks in.
Her daughter Sashi went missing one morning three years ago, never showing up at school. Sashi and her brother, Alexander, had been adopted from an orphanage in Moscow but were probably from Chechnya, victims of the violence there.
Sashi’s body was never recovered, but on the basis of some very unsavory evidence and a dubious confession, a creepy young man, Dylan Reeves, was convicted and is on death row at the Florida State Prison in Jacksonville. He claims they had consensual sex but knows nothing about any murder.
Now Debra tells Swyteck Sashi is alive. She, Debra, believes she has been receiving phone calls from Sashi, one a year, on her birthday, but the caller doesn’t actually speak. Police traced the calls to a burner phone.
Several possibilities arise at once:
Sashi is alive, and had run away, not for the first time.
Sashi is being held captive and allowed the calls by her captor. Or, some sicko calls Debra just to cause pain.
The police subscribe to this last theory. Debra is the victim of a sadistic hoax.
Swyteck and The Freedom Institute already represent Reeves. He redoubles his efforts to keep Reeves from the chair and, now, to determine if Sashi is still alive, but his investigations are further complicated by some distressing discoveries.
Alexander is a bright, sweet boy, but Sashi, older, was a badly damaged young person. She was a devil: in trouble at school, moody, violent, a thief, and sometimes walked around the house naked. An expert at trial described her as having “reactive attachment disorder,” RAD. She felt she could never be loved, but would manipulate strangers while remaining cold and distant to family.
Swyteck also learns the Burgettes were, perhaps, about to REHOME Sashi. That is the ultimate adoptive parent buyer’s remorse, to give up and move the child on to another family where she might fit better.
The Burgettes felt ashamed about this but were at the end of their rope. Their marriage was being destroyed by Sashi, and their biological daughter, Aquinnah, suffered too, directly at the hands of Sashi and from being ignored while her parents coped with Sashi.
If Sashi is dead, there are heaps of suspects besides Dylan Reeves: Perhaps her father Gavin? Had he noticed the 17-year-old was naked? Her desperate mother? Both? Her older sister whose life was being distorted?
Racing against the Death Row clock, Swyteck files for a stay of execution, and pursues first one possibility, then another, with none of his suspects telling him all of the truth, leading finally to a complicated and truly unexpected ending.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.