If you’ve read any of VS Kemanis’s previous Dana Hargrove legal thrillers, you’ll be familiar with her lively, interesting cast of characters. There’s Dana, a former prosecutor, now a judge in Manhattan’s criminal court system. There’s Cheryl Hargrove, her sister, a successful actor who plays a district attorney on the popular television programme, Plain Justice. Lots of room for intriguing situations there!
There’s Dana’s husband, another former prosecutor teaching law at NYU, since the couple’s relocation to Manhattan. There are also assorted children, housekeepers, chambers staff, law enforcement colleagues and others who help keep the sisters’ complicated lives on track. Most of all, I like Cheryl’s bodyguard-cum-chauffeur Mario, who gives her lots of good, mostly ignored advice about managing her safety.
The plot of Seven Shadows takes a bit too long to rev up, but eventually seven characters – Dana, Cheryl, Cheryl’s husband, her two children, her son’s girlfriend and a former colleague who’s an NYPD detective – seem to be victims of a stalker. They’re receiving ambiguous, vaguely threatening notes that reveal intimate knowledge of what they’re doing in their lives, and when, and where. At first, the different characters brush these intimations of danger aside, but once they realise they all are receiving them, Dana calls on her law enforcement colleagues for help. Is there real danger? Is only one person involved? And, how can they be protected?
Given the particular circumstances of their lives, each character has at least one good candidate as the sender, while Dana, who has put away any number of potentially disgruntled criminals, has a number of them. Her husband has an underperforming and aggressive student who’s failing criminal procedure and wants to be cut a break. Cheryl has her ex-husband, trying to gin up a custody suit involving their daughter. The son seems to have inspired jealous hostility in someone, and his girlfriend is a substance abuse counsellor with a hostile client.
The centre of the storm is Dana herself. In a few weeks she’ll be sentencing Suzette Spinnaker, a young woman made wealthy by social media, whose trial for the death of her boyfriend and business partner has just ended with a guilty verdict. But the jury found her guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and Dana wrestles with how much time she should serve. The first of the unsettling notes appears to relate to that case. ‘Suzy Suburbs gets Man One. Berto Barrio gets Murder.’ The list of convicted criminals who believe they were mishandled by the justice system is long.
Meanwhile, activity at the courthouse doesn’t stop. In Dana’s next case, she presides over the trial of a pill mill doctor who overprescribes narcotics. Over the years, quite a number of his patients have died of overdoses, but the trial will focus only on the most recent two deaths. Before the book ends, there will be a third case under the microscope, as well. As Dana’s colleagues begin to close in on a likely suspect, the danger to her and to her family escalates accordingly, and it’s a race to the finish.
As a fan of courtroom dramas, I liked this behind-the-scenes look at what goes through a judge’s mind during the course of trial and sentencing, and how Dana must wrestle with the facts of a case inside a relatively constrained set of legal parameters. In an afterword, Kemanis – a former Manhattan assistant district attorney herself – describes how different factual situations can lead to differing sentencing outcomes under New York’s criminal statutes, even when the jury reaches an identical verdict. So often, crime fiction involving the legal system ends with the jury verdict. This book takes it one step further.
Opus Nine Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars