'In the Shadow of the Law'

Lawyers-turned-authors have an almost unfair advantage: No matter how nefarious or corrupt their characters, readers have no problem believing in them. There are plenty of courtside shenanigans on view in In the Shadow of the Law, the debut novel of Kermit Roosevelt, a law professor and former Supreme Court clerk. (And yes, he's one of those Roosevelts.) Morgan Siler is the type of law firm that provides cots for associates for all-nighters, and where the head partner urges a lawyer to bill for time spent in the bathroom, since he's "thinking" about work. The firm is girding up to defend a particularly nasty case: a class-action suit against a chemical plant, where several dozen workers died.

Three first-year associates get sent to Texas to help with the grunt work: earnest, sleep-deprived Mark; the staggeringly vapid Ryan; and conflicted Katja. Mark is also stumbling his way through a pro bono death-penalty case. Everyone keeps assuring him that no one expects him to free the man, but that's slim comfort when the execution is just weeks away.

This legal thriller combines satisfyingly intricate puzzles with plenty of bite and some musings about the nature of law. Roosevelt does tidy things up a little too neatly at the end, but his strong characterizations and insider's knowledge more than make up for it.

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