“Wolf’s Revenge: A Leo Maxwell Novel”
Author: Lachlan Smith
Publisher: The Mysterious Press New York
Price: $25.00 (Hardcover)
Lachlan Smith is an attorney practicing in Birmingham. I do not hear much talk about the Leo Maxwell series around Alabama, perhaps because these novels are set in the Bay Area of California.
But, since the first in the series, “Bear Is Broken,” won the Shamus Award for best first P.I. Novel and this is the fifth, be assured there is a substantial and well-deserved readership.
Leo Maxwell, the protagonist, is that much-loathed creature, the defense attorney, the creep who gets the bad guys off by finding little errors in the police procedures or loopholes in the law. The last defense attorney anybody liked was Perry Mason.
In the earlier novels, Leo’s father, Lawrence, was, unjustly, in prison for murdering Leo’s mother, and then Leo’s brother, Teddy, was shot in the head.
Now Lawrence is out and Teddy is recovering slowly. He has married and has a six-year-old daughter, Carly, but he will never be the same.
Leo has a fairly normal, thriving practice in criminal defense, but the situation is complicated and unsavory. He is on a kind of retainer-by-extortion, fees paid by Bo Wilder, the head of The Aryan Brotherhood. Wilder is in San Quentin for life but ruling a criminal empire from behind bars. Leo is not expected to break the law but MUST take the clients the Aryan Brotherhood sends, in this case a young woman who shot her victim in the head on the street in front of witnesses. At first, her motive, even her name, is unknown. Leo has been ordered to defend this “Jane Doe.” He is reluctant.
Then, in the novel’s first scene, Leo’s niece, Carly, is briefly kidnapped at an Oakland A’s baseball game. She is unhurt. He has been reminded of the reach of the Aryan Brotherhood. Their criminal enterprise on the outside is vast and without conscience. It includes both the unwilling, like Leo, and stone-cold murderers like Jack Sims, who snatched Carly. Sims has the bulging muscles developed in a prison yard, and “the tattoos visible on his arms and neck, [were] the faded colors and gothic lettering of prison art.”
Leo is trapped, and he knows it. To the Aryan Brotherhood, people like Leo and his family are “sheep good for shearing while the season lasted. When the time came, we’d be led to the slaughter without a second thought.”
One odd element of this novel is the relative ease of life in state prison. Wilder and his gang are fairly comfortable, have most of what they need, including illegal cell phones, and enjoy huge power. They sort of run the prison. The death penalty is tough for prosecutors in California to get and the bad guys end up “in prison with smug looks on their faces. Kings on their thrones.”
This is a very knotty problem for the FBI. It is useless to gather evidence and prosecute gang leaders like Bo Wilder who are already serving life.
This situation forces the Feds into unusual strategies. Rather than arresting individuals, the goal becomes to create dissension among the gang members, to insert informants and double agents into the prison gang, to sow rumors and ignite a deadly struggle among gang rivals so they will come to suspect and kill one another, both in prison and on the streets of San Francisco.
A local FBI agent approaches Leo, and he and the agent form a peculiar and uneasy alliance. Leo learns the FBI has been playing a long game, years long, which has involved his father and his brother. Once recruited, Leo can no more quit working for the FBI than quit working for the Aryan Brotherhood. In fact, as the ends seem absolutely to justify the means for the FBI, Leo comes to think of the Feds as only marginally morally superior to the criminals they are hunting. Collateral damage means nothing to them.
Smith’s novels have been described as Russian Doll mysteries—one problem solved, another revealed. In its complexity, “Wolf’s Revenge” might remind a reader of a John LeCarré novel; few are who they seem to be. Spies and double agents abound. This novel has action, some violence, but its real strengths are its intricacy and some rather dispiriting revelations about our criminal justice system.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.