A moral dilemma lies at the heart of Conviction. Jack Jordan’s previous book featured a surgeon choosing between saving her family or her patient. And similarly, in this latest novel, a defence lawyer must make a difficult personal choice – throw her latest court case or place herself and her loved ones in jeopardy.
There are at least two mysteries woven together here. Part legal drama, part Hitchcockian noir thriller, Conviction sees legal ace Neve Harper defending a man accused of familicide. At the same time, an investigation remains open on her own missing husband. A London crime boss knows a grim secret about Neve and uses it to manipulate the result of the murder trial. It’s a compelling plot, with vivid characters and plenty of surprises. Gruesome details, tense stand-offs, and courtroom revelations stay with you long after you close the book.
Unfortunately, it’s clumsily written and anticlimactic. It’s in the first-person present tense, lending everything that fashionable sense of urgency and immersion. But there’s a lack of sophistication to the prose. It frequently tells rather than shows, happy to explicitly state when the lead character feels apprehension, for instance. And there’s a tendency to rely on cliché – stomachs churn, church bells repeatedly go bong, and flames lick at things hotly.
The descriptions are distractingly curious when the author breaks that pattern and attempts original images. “I feel my bladder clench. My kneecaps are chiming together like teeth,” we’re told. Are those things your body does?! “Alex sat at the seat of the fire like a cancer.” What? This is Jordan’s seventh book, so you think he’d be a more accomplished prosesmith by now. The strained nature of the text makes you appreciate the artistry of authors like Jonathan Kellerman.
If you can power through the nonsense – and many will, the actual words often being the last thing a reader remembers – the story is thrilling. It’s a lurid tale of murder and betrayal, set immediately before and during the murder trial at the Old Bailey. The city’s Tube trains, wine bars and riverside provide a familiar backdrop.
The otherwise riveting pace is occasionally tripped up by exposition dumps. Still, you can forgive it because the author has an instinct for what makes you turn the page. A man with a gun always turns up at just the right moment. There are two deus ex machina moments in the novel, though: a hitherto-unmentioned PA who turns up with a helpful document and a final outburst at the courthouse that saves Neve from dealing with the trial’s consequences.
As the viewpoint character, she is painfully flawed, hypocritical and dangerous. But you side with her anyway, anxious that she escapes her latest predicament. This woman agonises over her responsibilities as a lawyer but barely thinks twice before drugging her stepdaughter. “The sense of duty is engraved in me,” Neve states pompously. “It is right, and it is wrong; black and white.” But a few chapters later, she arranges for a journalist to be killed. She’s deliciously unreliable.
Other characters are memorable, too. The private detective who works with Neve deserves more time, but her busybody mother-in-law, her stepdaughter Hannah, the gangland Messenger who stalks her, and the defendant in the murder trial – even those playing small parts are vividly described and unique.
Neve’s sins go largely unpunished in the book, and when you find out exactly what she’s done in the past, it’s underwhelming – her actions in the present to hide the evidence of her guilt are far worse. She has a contrived background, a throwaway remark about foster homes serving to explain why she functions the way she does. But nonetheless, Jordan does a decent job of making us care for her, despite her doing stupid and terrible things. The book is never more exhilarating than when we’re following Neve’s racing thoughts as she tries to evade detection.
This story could be a classic in the hands of another author; it has elements that belong in the works of Patricia Highsmith. As it is, it’s a tense, messy, entertaining, ludicrous narrative that will delight dabbling fun-seekers but infuriate well-read crime fiction lovers.
For another legal thriller try Central Park West by James Comey.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 3 Stars