“Panther’s Prey: A Leo Maxwell Mystery”
Author: Lachlan Smith
Publisher: Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic
Price: $24.00 (Trade Cloth)
Lachlan Smith, now a practicing attorney in Birmingham, studied writing at Stanford and then went to law school at Berkeley. Despite his training in literary fiction, Smith opted for the faster paced legal thriller genre, combining his interests.
His time in California also resulted in a love for the Bay Area and the moody, foggy locales of the noir detective novels set there, such as Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.”
In Smith’s Leo Maxwell books, the hero, Leo, and his big brother Teddy are defense attorneys, despised by the police, since they often reveal the cops’ incompetence and/or corruption.
The first in the series, “Bear is Broken,” makes extensive use of the Bay Area setting.
“Panther’s Prey” less so, although the hero Leo Maxwell has moved into a crummy room in the Tenderloin District.
He had to. In the last novel, “Fox is Framed,” Leo was shot, his law office burned, and he lost his condominium through bankruptcy.
You would not call the Maxwell novels disturbing or sadistic in the way of “American Psycho,” exactly, but in this one, the fourth, a serial rapist/torturer/killer nicknamed “The Panther" is on the loose. Leo’s new girlfriend, Jordan, also an attorney, is savagely murdered and Leo, himself a suspect, means to solve the case.
He comes up against some very tough guys and Leo, not exactly a Navy Seal, generally suffers. He is beaten, has a horrific motorcycle accident and a car accident and nearly drowns twice, first in salt water and then in fresh water.
Often damaged, in pain, bandaged heavily, Leo is one of the most frequently injured heroes you will ever encounter.
This is a stand-alone novel, but a reader would still do best to begin with the first. A chunk of exposition near the beginning of “Panther’s Prey” summarizing the first three brings you up to speed, but could spoil the reading of them if you intend to go back and read them from the beginning.
“Panther’s Prey” opens with Leo and Jordan defending Randall Rodriguez, a man who has in fact confessed to murder. The problem is, Rodriguez, who suffered horrible child abuse and has “spent his adult life on the street, in mental hospitals, or in jail,” has confessed to two murders and a rape in the past five years.
Leo irritates the police thoroughly by proving Rodriguez didn’t do it, confession or not.
Leo’s investigation into Jordan’s death leads him down several interesting roads. Did the recently released Rodriguez kill Jordan? Are there crooked cops? More than one suspicious “suicide" occurs. Does a criminal mastermind control events from inside prison? Is a prestigious law firm involved? There is some genius able to create amazingly convincing state-of-the-art fake video.
It seems clear that there is a huge corruption scheme concerning a ghetto rehabilitation construction project in the Bayview-Hunters Point District, complete with organized crime, which may involve Chinese gangs. In these lively, enjoyable novels, Lachlan Smith gives the reader plenty of plot lines to keep track of.
In popular culture these days, defense lawyers are held in low esteem. Not revered as Perry Mason was, they are the creeps who get the guilty off through a technicality or point out the cops’ carelessness. Watch a recent episode of “Major Crimes” if you need confirmation.
Leo Maxwell enunciates the paradoxical defense lawyers’ code: In our judicial system, there is a presumption of innocence and, although they know their clients don’t tell the whole truth, all defense counsel needs is a scenario, however dubious, plausible enough to believe in.
A strong defense forces the police to be thorough and, although most who are arrested “probably need to be…many are just in the wrong place, of the wrong skin color, at the wrong time[.] [S]ome are hardened, but many are scared, homeless, addicted to drugs and alcohol, caught in the hustle like rats on a wheel. The system dehumanizes equally all whom it catches.”
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.