(creator: Sheldon Siegel)
|Mike Daley, who is the narrator throughout, had been a Catholic priest for three years before he had gone to law school. He explains, "I was a pretty good priest. I was also a very sad priest. I loved it at first. I thought I was helping people and making a difference. Then I became frustrated by church politics. I spent more time by myself. I became lonely. The loneliness led to sadness, the sadness led to depression." A colleague advised him to abandon the priesthood "before the depression consumed me". Although the three years he spent as a priest certainly left their mark on him, his final verdict was that, "The priesthood isn't all that it's cracked up to be."
After law school, he went on to spend seven years as a San Francisco Public Defender, then five years as "an underproductive partner" in the criminal defence department at the big corporate law firm of Simpson and Gates, before he "graciously agreed to resign". This is the situation at the start of the first book when, aged 45 and divorced (but still regularly seeing his six-year-old daughter Grace and his ex-wife Rosie, full name Rosita, to whom he had once been married for "about three years"), he decides to set up his own law firm in partnership with his ex-wife who is also a lawyer.
About his appearance, he tells us that he is six feet tall and, at the time of the first book, "My thick brown hair is matted to the top of my head. There are a few flecks of gray in the sideburns. The crow's-feet around my eyes remind me that I'm no longer in my thirties. My face is a little more rounded than it used to be. I still have the lean legs and torso of a cross-country runner. Rosie says that I look like the consummate middle-aged Irishman - a combination of boiled potatoes and beer. I realise that I'm beginning to look more and more like my dad." His late father had been a San Francisco cop, much opposed to his son becoming either a priest or a lawyer. His mother was succumbing to Alzheimer's.
Sheldon Siegel (1958 - ) grew up in Chicago's Southeast side. He was awarded his undergraduate degree in accounting from the University of Illinois in Champaign and his law degree at the Boalt Law School of the University of California - Berkeley. Since then he has been in private practice in San Francisco, specializing in corporate and securities law. He has written seven legal thrillers featuring ex-priest Mike Daley, who, unlike him, is a criminal defense attorney. He lives in the San Francisco area with his wife and twin sons.
Special Circumstances (2000)
Most of the book is taken up with an extremely detailed account of the trial which nevertheless manages to hold the attention throughout. It is helped along by the author's sardonic sense of humor as when, describing his last meeting at his previous firm, he tells us, “In the spirit of the holiday season, everybody is dressed in festive dark gray business suits, starched monogrammed white shirts and red power ties". Then a receptionist who was “a twenty-two-year-old part-time art student .... confided to me that she would like to become an artist, a stock car driver or the wife of a rich attorney. I have it on good authority that a couple of my partners have already taken her out for a test drive."
Then there is partner Charles Stern, described as “a terminally morose tax attorney ,,,, Except for light reading of the Daily Tax Report, the only joy in his life seems to be the production of an endless stream of memos on every imaginable administrative subject, and some that are unimaginable. My life would be a hollow, empty shell without at least one missive every day about procedures, timesheets and expense reimbursements. He insists that everyone calls him Charles. Not Charlie. Not Chuck. Charles". It was Mike, of course, who had “sarcastically dubbed him Chuckles. Naturally, everyone now refers to him by that name".
It is after Chuckles had explained why it had been decided to spend money on upgrading computers rather than in paying bonuses to associates, that Joel had told him, “You realise, Charles, that what you just said is complete and utter bull shit?" Without waiting for a response, he pushes his chair back and calmly walks out of the room. Chuckles looks over the top of his reading glasses. Sensing the mood is not good, he asks the questions he pauses for at least a full second before he gathers his notes and practically sprints from the room." I loved the "sensing the mood was not good" comment. It is this sort of lively writing that brings the story to life.
But is the behind-the-scenes planning and plotting that you remember best, as when it is shown how much it helps if a lawyer trying to get bail for a client happens to attend the same temple as the judge trying the case. And it was an eye-opener to me how day after day would be spent selecting the most helpful-looking jury members. Mike explains, “I'm trying to avoid anybody who's ever been arrested, divorced or sued" as the defendant Joel is a lawyer. Then each evening there is an analysis by legal analysts of CNN on how the jury selection is going, “Asians are good prosecution jurors. They like order. On the other hand, the Hispanic man has probably had trouble with the law. I'm sure he'll be sympathetic to the defence. The black woman will almost certainly favour the defence. I'm sure she's had friends or relatives hassled by the cops. She's probably going to give the defendant a pretty fair shake." In fact, as Mike knows, “the Hispanic man is a senior vice president at Chevron and lives in the most expensive corner of the ritzy Seacliff neighbourhood." But that does not stop all the TV speculation and comment that continues throughout the trial.
There is also the matter of the sheer hypocrisy of some of the lawyers. Even Mike tells the jury, “We all know that there are lawyers who will do just about anything to get their client off .... I want you to understand something. I'm not that kind of lawyer. I will not lie to you. I will not attempt to confuse you. And I will not, under any circumstances, try to mislead you." But then he goes on to admit to us, “Actually, I'd try to obfuscate and confuse them in a New York minute if I thought it would help get Joel off.“
Although the author himself is not a criminal lawyer, he has obviously had much useful advice and succeeds in producing a thoroughly convincing story, notable for the painstaking (but never boring) detail of what goes on both in and out of court. Mike Daley emerges as a lively character about whom it will be interesting to read more. Although brought up as a cradle Catholic, there's not much reference to his religious background beyond a single use of the expletive, "Jesus Christ". So, although I can recommend the book as a whole, I can hardly recommend him as a clerical detective.
Incriminating Evidence (2001)
The search for evidence takes Mike and his ex-wife and business partner Rosie from the lowest depths of the Mission district where drugs and bodies are always on sale, to the gated mansions of Pacific Heights. They have to deal with a whole variety of unpleasant and powerful characters before the time comes for the trial to start.
It is not all that interesting a story and most of the elements from the first book reappear, including a suspect who has guilty secrets that form important parts of the truth, the last of which is not revealed until the very last moment, the offer of a deal from the prosecution, the defendant's refusal to waive time to give Mike more time for preparation, a belligerent relative of the defender's, and difficulties raised by less competent defence lawyers with whom a reluctant Mike is forced to cooperate. There's another feisty female judge - and so it goes on. Inevitably it lacks the sheer novelty of the first book. However, the trial scene is considerably shorter and this again holds the interest. It is the best part of the book.
Mike still occasionally finds it helpful to "summon the reserved tone used when I listened to confessions" but it is only such superficial things that seem to have survived from the three years he had spent as a priest. He explains, "When I decided to become a lawyer, I had all the familiar motivations that come with being young and sure you can make an impact. I guess I still carried a lot of the package that had brought me to the seminary. I'd wanted to be a good priest and I wanted to be a good lawyer justice and all that .... I suppose I still do, but it's hard to keep that up when you have to deal every day with all the grief and corruption around you and I want to do a good job, but I'm so tired a lot of the time. I've forgotten how to have fun."
Mike is still happy to sleep with his ex-wife Rosie but, with the pressure of the impending murder trial upon them, tells her, "This is no way to live. I have to have more time for Grace (their young daughter). For me. For what you and I do together." They agree to face up to the problem as soon as the trial has ended. And then the jury selection process is on them, and Mike tells us, as in the first book, that "most trials are won or lost during jury selection". And again they have a "jury consultant" to help them choose the most accomodating members: " You don't want to go into a major trial without a jury consultant whom you trust. She keeps reminding me that I should try to fill the jury with women and uneducated men. The women would tend to be more open-minded, she says. The men might be easier to confuse.“
In the end, all turns out well - as you knew it must - and the relieved Mike, Rosie and Grace decide to set off for a holiday in Hawaii. But although Mike feels that he goes on "turning every tiny issue into a morality play" - it's a morality play without God.
Criminal Intent (2002)
Mike and Rosie's law firm is having a hard time of things: "We pay our bills by cutting deals on drink-driving cases and representing small-time hoodlums and an occasional drug dealer." Rosie's illness had "required her to cut back her practice", and Angel has no money to pay for their services unless she is found innocent and the insurance firm pays out on her husband's life insurance policy. No wonder that right at the end of the book, they decide to accept an offer from the university to run a law school clinic and use their law firm only to "take on selective cases".
Meanwhile, they have to get to work to save Angel, and, helped by a considerable amount of luck, they succeed in solving the case before it even gets to preliminary hearing. This proves to be a mixed blessing for although there is a danger that after a time one court scene sounds very much like another, the author's real strength lies in describing them. Without them there is little sense of excitement or suspense but a great deal of talk and conjecture, not helped by a rather tedious set of characters from the (not altogether convincing) movie world.
The best bits of the book are those concerned with Mike and Rosie's uncertain relationship. It takes Mike's brother Pete to tell him, "I think you and Rosie should try to work something out." Mike himself remains an interesting person, but unfortunately seems less given to the use of the sardonic humor that used to enliven his narratives. Although there are various references to his (brief) time as priest, they are still at quite a superficial level (as for example, a mention of the special "priest-voice" he occasionally makes use of, and his view of heaven as a place where "I'd like to spend some time with my dad .... I'd like to let mom know that Grace (his ten-year-old daughter) is doing okay. She worried. I'd like to spend some time with my younger brother. It would have been nice to have seen what he would have done with his life"). And this is almost all he can tell Rosie when she herself is facing possibly imminent death. Later, he tries to assure her, "I made a deal with God .... If God lets you get better, I promised not to screw up our relationship again."
The author too readily assumes that all his readers will be familar with such contemporary American figures as Dan Rather (he was, I discovered from Google, a former news anchor at CBS News), but he also has his eyes open for such American oddities as a "fireworks funeral" ("They take your ashes out in a boat called the Naiad. Then they shoot your ashes up in fireworks. That's how they're scattered"). But the basic plot is still disappointing and not made any the more credible by a sudden surprise revelation right at the end.
Final Verdict (2003)
It is a year since Mike and Rosie had given up private practice to teach law at Mike's (and the author's) old alma mater Boalt Law School, but it hadn't worked out, so they were back in their old jobs. The book starts with an amusing account of Mike defending a client accused of using a cooked chicken as a deadly weapon. As the judge puts it, "It is nice to have you back, Mr Daley. You bring a certain practical experience to our proceedings, along with some badly needed humor." He and Rosie had decided that "We wouldn't take on any murder cases". So she is far from pleased when Mike agrees to help the dying man. But despite telling him, "I'm not going to try to deal with a murder case, menopause and breast cancer at the same time", this is what she gets round to doing. The relationship beween the two of them, and with their 11-year-old daughter Grace, is convincingly described throughout.
As his client is so ill, Mike persuades the judge to bring forward the preliminary hearing in which, defying convention, he plans "to put on a full defense for our client". It gives him very little time to track down the real killer. But his search leads him to some interesting characters such as the millionnaire pornography king, Artie Carponelli, who is quite happy to explain "how a nice Catholic boy with an engineering degree from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard ended up running an adult theater on Sixth Street". He uses all the latest business methods to "provide a legitimate service to a diversified clientele" and even provides health insurance for his girls!
The Confession (2004)
Despite the by now familiar background and list of characters (and the author's continuing preoccupation with crow's-feet at the corner of people's eyes), the church setting (including even the Archbishop of San Francisco and his priestly and legal henchmen) considerably adds to the interest of this story. And characters like Nick the Dick still make lively and entertaining reading. It is he who “is a local legend and one of the few living contacts to San Francisco's tawdry past. Still in robust health in his late eighties, the diminutive man-about- town has been a gumshoe for six decades. His agency in North Beach employs a dozen PIs, all of whom are related to him, and he writes mysteries in his spare time. I love Nick."
It is almost 20 years since Mike left the priesthood (he is 50 now) but the memory gives him increased sympathy for Father Ramon Aguirre who explains that, “I'm more of a politician than a priest. Our parish is poor, and I spend half my time fund-raising". And, like Mike, he had a “propensity for expressing views that run counter to the party line" which had “never endeared him to the church hierarchy". It is not long before we're really caring what happens to him, and hope with him that the case can be sorted out at the preliminary stage so that he can be back in his parish for Christmas. It then turns out that twenty years ago, before he had gone to seminary, he had slept with the murdered woman: "It was nice, but it isn't all that it is cracked up to be." And he'd gone on to her help her in another distinctly unconventional way in recent times.
Amongst Mike's much-needed helpers is his younger brother Pete, who had turned private eye after being thrown out of the police. "His dark brown eyes reflect the glow of the street light above us as he gives me his honest assessment of our situation. “We are fucked, Mick," he says.
It all leads up to a long preliminary court hearing in which, as usual in these books, care is taken by the prosecution to demean the accused by always describing him as "the defendant" rather than using his proper name, and Mike explains to the judge (no jury is involved), that his “only objective is to find the truth," which, he admits to us, is “complete bullshit". Once again prosecutors and defence attorneys keep interrupting each other with objections that are either rapidly sustained or overruled by the judge. All this sounds convincing enough, but what is much less probable is Mike's revelation outside the court of who the murderer actually was.
Mike asks Ramon, who is considering leaving the priesthood, "What are you going to do?"
The background of extended appeals procedures is interesting and makes a change from previous books, but it is not until the final appeals court finally gets under way 14 hours and 1 minute before the execution is due, that real excitement builds up and the story comes to life. It proves to be what Mike expected: "Two hours of high-stakes improvisional theater". It is all graphically described, the only pity being that it took 325 pages to get there.
Each chapter starts with a statement of the days, minutes and hours remaining until the execution but as the book is very slow paced and the condemned man such an unpleasant character, it is difficult to feel as involved as the author must have hoped, and I, for one, was soon wishing that time would pass faster!
The old favorites reappear, including retired attorney Mort "the Sport" Goldberg (now resident in the Jewish Home where, as a seventy-six year old, he was "one of the younger residents"). It is he who offers Mike this free advice: "Number one, don't get old. Number two, don't get sick. Number three, don't get old and sick at the same time. It's bad for your health." He assures Mike that Nate "isn't a murderer" but had been set-up by the cops. And that included Mike's father. There's also Nick "the Dick" Hanson, octogenarian PI who is still in fine fettle.
Mike struggles on, explaining that "I still believe in miracles" but when his younger brother Pete survives getting shot, goes as far as offering "a silent thanks to the Almighty. It's the closest I've come to praying in a long time."
He is also getting worried about his 14-year-old daughter Grace who is starting to go out with Jake "who is the ripe old age of sixteen ... He pitches for the Redwood High School varsity. Grace is the starting shortstop on the softball team. As far as we can tell, their relationship - such as it is - has been pretty tame. I'm hopeful they'll continue spending most of their time talking about sports. I get nightmares, though, worrying about the various meanings of getting to second base." It is comments like this, and his continuing relationship with Rosie, together with the gripping court case, that provide the best parts of what otherwise seems a rather long book.
Mike and Rosie are soon busy unearthing family skeletons, desperate in their search for the real murderer - for it is only by doing this that they can save Bobby. But the evidence against Bobby continues to mount and they face up to what Bobby and the still under-age Grace may really have been up to. "Have you been sleeping with my daughter," Mike confronts Bobby.
Page after page of incessant questions and answers about the past do not always hold the interest, but there are lively, interesting parts, such as the dramas in court (there are more court scenes in this book, and that is what the author does best), and visits to such places as the Sunshine Massage Parlor with its exploited under-age Asian girls and distinguished local clients that had included the judge.
Every now and then the author's sardonic sense of humor happily still comes to the fore as when he describes the annual encampment of the old Bohemian Club (to which the dead judge had belonged and which was an "all-male bastion of the powerful and famous" where the campers spend time "listening to political lectures (dubbed 'lakeside chats'), working out the details of multi-million dollar mergers, and consuming copious amounts of food and alcohol. At night, the frivolity includes light-hearted camp songs around the fire with cheery guys like Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfield and Henry Kissinger, and talking about uplifting subjects like the end of Western Civilization."
Mike and Rosie face up to the legal challenges with their usual ruthless determination and persistence, realising that their only hope is to throw suspicion on someone else. During all this, they jointly get offered the job of heading the felony division at the Public Defenders' Office where they will be responsible for training young defense lawyers - but will still be able to do a couple of court cases a year. Eventually, they agree to go for this and it becomes "the first major decision we've agreed on in a long time". But they also agree that Mike will try moving in with Rosie for a couple of nights a week when, she tells him, he'll be able to see more of Grace and 4-year-old Tommy and "You could even help with the dishes". Old Homicide Inspector Roosevelt also declares that this will be his last case. And Mike and Rosie get round to admitting they're in love again. The end of the series?
|The color of the cover of the first book may look garish, but don't let that put you off what is a thoroughly convincing story.|
|This is a particularly interesting book from the point of view of clerical detectives because it's about a priest who is charged with murder.|