Sunday Book Reviews – 12/13/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

The Court of Last Resort by Erle Stanley Gardner (1952, William Sloane)

This work by the creator of Perry Mason was reissued in 2017 and is readily available through stores. If anyone on your holiday gift list is interested in the law, they’ll likely be fascinated by the book.

It explains the origin and effects of a column, The Court of Last Resort, which ran in the magazine Argosy in the 1940s and into the 1950s. The term refers to the court of public opinion, and the column ran irregularly as Gardner came across particularly troubling cases.

Spurred by a story of a wrongfully convicted man, Gardner and the publisher of Argosy gathered together a small team of expert investigators who were tasked with determining the facts behind suspicious cases. If mistakes were found with the prosecution – evidence ignored, facts improperly presented, etc. – and the full information about the case suggested that a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, Gardner would summarize the facts of the case in his column. In some cases, local reporters or law enforcement would take another look at the case; in others, pressure developed for leniency or pardons; in still more, further evidence was produced by readers which demonstrated that the accused were, in fact, guilty of the crimes.

The success of the columns and this book led to a short-lived 1950s television show of the same name. It also served as the inspiration for a variety of similar nonprofit and collegiate organizations which attempt to separate those who are improperly imprisoned from those who have actually committed terrible crimes.

It’s the origin of groups like the Innocence Project, written by one of the great storytellers of the first half of the 20th century. The book is firmly recommended for anyone who has any interest in the subject matter.

Deal Breaker by Harlan Coben (1995, Dell)

Harlan Coben is one of the world’s best-selling thriller writers, but back in the mid-1990s he could often be found hanging around bookstores on the New Jersey coastline, trying to convince people to read his books despite their covers. That’s where I first met him, and this was the first book of his I read. For anyone curious about his work, I strongly recommend this as an introduction.

It’s the first title in his long-running Myron Bolitar series, but it’s not his first book. He’d had two novels published prior to Deal Breaker, and they were uneven. Competently written, with an excellent ear for dialogue but what felt like forced plot twists (particularly toward the end) they were not his best work and would be as likely as not to keep potential fans from trying his other works.

With Deal Breaker, he started firing on all cylinders. Bolitar is a former college basketball star whose career ended with injury. Using his collegiate connections he has begun a new life as a sports agent, but his first true star signing has some terrible secrets. Blackmail from a former girlfriend long thought dead gets Myron and his best friend Win investigating.

The complex plotting and odd yet believable characters draw the reader in, and the lighthearted banter between the characters is clever. It’s a pleasant mix of mystery novel and thriller while providing a glimpse into the detailed histories and interpersonal relationships which form the basis for most of his books. Subsequent books tend to get progressively more bleak while fleshing out the Myron’s past in a less-than-believable way… few people in a Coben novel have had a truly ordinary life… but the traits which have earned him millions of fans are all present in this award winning novel.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.