Hi! I’m Odin Halvorson, writer, editor, and professional reviewer. In the weeks ahead, my weekly review column will focus on new mystery and science fiction books from across the spectrum, with special attention paid to releases from indie presses! Today’s review is for Confessions of an Accidental Lawyer by Michael Stockham, a new award-winning legal mystery.
An inexperienced lawyer gets his chance at taking a case to trial, defending a prisoner’s Eighth Amendment case against unreasonable cruelty. It could be the case he needs to make his career. But, as the defense doubles down with dirty tactics, and the prejudices of a backwater jury threaten the fairness of the trial, it becomes clear that justice and law are not always on the same side.
I came to The Confessions of an Accidental Lawyer without many expectations. I’d received an ARC at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and agreed to take a look. But books from indie presses and self-published authors can be hit or miss, and I have a policy of not providing books with negative reviews: if I don’t like it, I don’t review. So, what would I find in these pages? Would An Accidental Lawyer win the case for my attention?
There are three main story threads, the primary two are focused on Daniel Simmons, a young and inexperienced lawyer and new first-time father. The third is a supporting thread for the character of the prisoner that Daniel defends, Emmet Kendrick. And it was Emmet’s story that captivated me from the start.
Emmet’s chapters are harrowing for their brutal display of State power over the incarcerated population. The story weaved here is subtle: the little cruelties that people in power enjoy inflicting, and the fight that Emmet undertakes is one of supreme simplicity. Not freedom, not a grand change in his material conditions… Emmet Kendrick only wants access to the medication that will keep him alive. Medication that he claims has been consistently, and intentionally, denied.
As the story progresses, we’re treated to a stark picture of the United States, one where entire towns are converted into generational support mechanisms for massive prisons, where children follow in their parent’s footsteps to become guards and prison nurses because that’s the only work anyone knows. In a way, these people are just as much prisoners as anyone locked in a cell.
The lawyer Daniel’s life as a new father is marred by complications in the birth of his first child and mounting medical debt that squeezes his little family hard. Aspects of this are painfully real. Who in the landscape of privatized healthcare has not suffered beneath its yoke? The book showed the effects of debt without going deeper into the issues, which actually allowed the point to hit home more keenly. We can all relate to Daniel’s struggles.
There’s an unfortunate shallowness to the character of Daniel’s wife, who has very little personality on the page, and this detracted from my experience with the domestic plot. Who is this woman? Does she have any desires beyond specifically wanting four children? She seemed like a medium for plot tension, not a real human being. There is inherent tension in this little family’s life as they struggle to balance health, debt, and their dreams of family, but it would have been nice to see Daniel’s wife experience some agency and some growth.
However, the meat of the story comes through the legal side of the story, where Daniel’s representation of Emmet on an intensifying legal battlefield quickly sucks the reader in.
It’s easy to become invested in the details of Emmet’s life and imprisonment. I felt immersed in Daniel’s sometimes desperate efforts to bring the pieces of his case together. This is the aspect of legal mysteries that I enjoy the most: being invited into a hypothetical case and seeing if I can come up with ways it could be solved, gaps in the defense’s arguments, or better ways to present an attack. As a reader, there’s nothing more fun than feeling like you’re in the middle of the action, the verbal and intellectual riposte and repartee.
For a debut novel, especially one released on the indie field, things were surprisingly tight, and the manuscript had clearly been polished to a keen edge. There were some structural and pacing issues between the domestic and legal plots, but within every chapter, a note of kinetic tension pulled the reader firmly along. The ability to keep this sort of pressure up throughout a novel is a sign of real skill. It’s clear that Michael Stockham is bringing all his decades of experience in the legal field to bear on these pages; he deftly shows the innate drama of the courtroom, and the emotional lives of the people whose fates are decided in the legal halls. Ultimately, this is the sort of gripping weekend that will keep you glued to the page from beginning to end, and I look forward to seeing more from this author in the years to come.