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Claire Hamner Matturro Reviews Robert Bailey’s “Between Black and White”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creative Writing, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, Novels, Southern Literary Review, Southern Literature, The Novel, The South, Writing on June 15, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com.

The review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.

Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.

While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.

As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.

His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.

Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.

Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.

On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.

That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.

Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.

Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.

Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.

Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.

Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.

Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.

In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.

Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.

Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.

It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.

In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.

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Claire Hamner Matturo Reviews Robert Bailey’s “The Professor”

In Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Humanities, Justice, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literature, The Novel, Writing on May 25, 2016 at 6:45 am

ClaireHamnerMatturroforSoLitRev

Claire Hamner Matturro, a former lawyer and college teacher, is the author of four legal mysteries with a sense of humor. Her books are Skinny-Dipping (2004) (a BookSense pick, Romantic Times’ Best First Mystery, and nominated for a Barry Award); Wildcat Wine (2005) (nominated for a Georgia Writer of the Year Award); Bone Valley (2006) and Sweetheart Deal (2007) (winner of Romantic Times’ Toby Bromberg Award for Most Humorous Mystery), all published by William Morrow. She remains active in writers’ groups, teaches creative writing in adult education, and does some freelance editing. Visit her at www.clairematturro.com

This review originally appeared here in Southern Literary Review.

Move over, John Grisham, there’s a new kid on the legal thriller playing field.

Robert Bailey, an Alabama trial attorney and graduate of The University of Alabama School of Law, returns the kickoff for a 100 yard touchdown with his debut novel, The Professor. The football reference is apropos as the protagonist of The Professor was a member of Alabama’s famous 1961 National Champion football team, and the book opens with a guest appearance by venerated Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Alabama’s 1961 national championship was the first of the six that Bear Bryant would win as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and the fighting spirit of that 1961 team resounds throughout the novel.

But one does not need to be a football fan or even a fan of legal thrillers to enjoy Bailey’s book as its writing is smooth, captivating and, in all the right places, emotionally moving—all the more impressive in that Bailey only took a single creative writing class while an undergraduate at Davidson College. According to Bailey, “We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive.  It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun.”

How did he go from taking just one creative writing class to writing a riveting debut of a legal thriller?

In law school, Bailey served on the law review, an honor generally reserved for those who can write well. Yet there is a football field of difference in writing an analytical, academic, footnoted and blue-booked law review article and composing an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.

The bridge, then, between writing like a lawyer and writing like a top-drawer novelist was part inspiration, part studying other novels, and part the hard work of rewriting, redrafting, and revising. Bailey’s inspiration came from growing up in Alabama as a Bear Bryant fan and from wanting to write about a brash young “bull-in-a-china-shop” new attorney—a character whose experiences resemble Bailey’s own days straight out of law school. As for studying other legal thrillers and books, Bailey has said, “Yes, I have learned a lot from reading other novels.  Also, Stephen King’s instructional memoir, On Writing, was a big influence and inspiration.” And as for the hard work of revision and rewriting—it took Bailey eight years to finish The Professor, though he was practicing law, trying cases, and raising a family at the same time.

Bailey, a history major and a Huntsville, Alabama, native, is quite the Bear Bryant fan and a football historian. These personal interests enrich The Professor and play into Bailey’s creation of the lead character, Professor Thomas Jackson McMurtrie.

In some ways McMurtrie, the protagonist, is an unusual leading man. For one thing, he is 68 and his glory days on the famous Alabama football team of 1961 are long behind him. He faces serious health issues, mourns his late wife, and has been unfairly manipulated out of his position as an evidence professor at the University of Alabama School of Law into an unwanted early retirement. One of his former students—and a man he had called a friend—was complicit in the scheme to push him out as a law professor, and the betrayal wounds McMurtrie deeply.

Yet, in other ways, McMurtrie is the ideal leading man—for one thing his skills and instincts as a trial attorney form the perfect balance to his headstrong, volatile former student, Rick Drake, when they take on a trucking company in a wrongful-death case. McMurtrie, named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, epitomizes what we would want in both a leading man and a lawyer—he is somewhat of a modern Atticus Finch, albeit with some different demons. Bailey writes in his author’s notes that he wanted to create a character that was a “man of exceptional integrity, strength, and class.” This Bailey has done.

Rick Drake, the lawyer version of a yin to McMurtrie’s yang, is more of what readers might expect in legal thrillers. A young lawyer, brash, over his head, yet passionate about his client and the case, Drake has more gumption and zeal than skills. He needs the experience and even temperament of McMurtrie. Drake also needs an expert in evidence, and McMurtrie literally wrote the textbook on evidence law in Alabama.

But here’s the rub: Drake and McMurtrie have a turbulent history. Drake was McMurtrie’s law student and the two came to blows—literally—after Drake hotheadedly dashed his trial advocate team’s chances of winning a national trial competition. McMurtrie was the team’s coach. After a video of the angry clash between the professor and the student was posted on YouTube, a conniving new dean at the law school used the incident as part of his plan to push McMurtrie out of his tenured position.

So, let’s just say Drake and McMurtrie are not best friends.

Yet each man knows the value of the other. Drake has the vigor McMurtrie fears is waning in himself. And McMurtrie has decades of knowledge and the calm, deliberate skills Drake lacks.

Thus, out of these conflicts and contrasting personalities, the characters of McMurtrie and Drake form an integral part of what makes The Professor work so well. This is a book about people, vividly drawn and fully realized, overcoming obstacles within themselves—as well as obstacles placed in their way by unscrupulous others.

Superb writing and engaging protagonists, though, are not the only things that make this debut so compelling. This is a bam-bam-bam book as far as plot goes, with plenty of action in and out of the courtroom. In the opening chapters, there is a horrific and fiery automobile crash, betrayal, suicide, murder, blackmail and enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages all night. There’s a good reason Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and another Alabama writer, calls The Professor “[g]ripping from the first page to the last.”

In a tightly woven plot that unfolds naturally in well-paced scenes, McMurtrie refers a former girlfriend (from the days before his marriage) to Drake for representation in a wrongful-death action after her granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law slam into a speeding eighteen-wheeler and die. McMurtrie recommends that she retain Drake in part because Drake grew up in the town where the lawsuit will be tried and McMurtrie believes in the home-court advantage. Yet McMurtrie also believes Drake can win the case—and he wants to help the struggling lawyer.

The defendant trucking company’s owner is an unscrupulous yet tough adversary who has the power to pervert the quest for hard evidence. Drake and McMurtrie have to prove in a court of law what they know is true—the trucking company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed in order to clock more miles and make more money for the company. Yet the trucking company’s owner doesn’t play by any rules, which gives him an apparent upper hand in disposing of key witnesses and the paper trail of evidence. Compounding the pressure on Drake and McMurtrie, the trucking company’s attorney is none other than McMurtrie’s former friend who betrayed him and helped oust him from his teaching career.

The stakes go beyond money. The plaintiff wants the world to know the truth about the accident—that her family died because of a concerted, greedy corporate plan that turned its eighteen-wheelers into dangerous weapons.

McMurtrie wants to avenge himself against his former friend and later betrayer, and he wants to help his former girlfriend. Not incidentally, he hopes to prove that even at 68, “The old bull still has a little gas in the tank.” And, maybe, he hopes to get his job as a law professor back. He definitely wants to help Drake and set matters right between them.

Yet in some ways, Drake is the one who has the most at stake. The YouTube of his shoving contest with McMurtrie painted him as an uncontrollable hothead and cost him his position at a big law firm. He is barely earning his rent as a solo practitioner. He questions himself. If Drake is going to survive as an attorney, he needs a courtroom victory. But beyond building his career, he needs to get right in his own head and prove he is capable of being a winning trial attorney—one who will not blow up and ruin the case as he did during the law school trial team competition. Drake is a young man, not fully formed as a man or an attorney, and this trial will make or break his maturation.

The trial scenes resonate with realism. Naturally so, given that the author is a practicing attorney and a shareholder with the law firm of Lanier Ford in Huntsville. Interestingly enough, the author defends—among others—trucking companies. Similar to his character Drake, Bailey was a winner in trial advocacy competitions while in law school.

The Professor introduces the character of Bocephus Haynes, McMurtrie’s favorite former student. Bocephus plays an important yet secondary role in the story as ally and emotional support, but he is set to return in a leading role in the sequel, Between Black and White. A third manuscript, now in the works, will take Drake and McMurtrie back to Tuscaloosa, and Drake’s story line and growth as a character will be explored further and in more detail.

 

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