Each year, the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal sponsor the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, given to a book which “features the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.” This year’s finalists have been announced and I thought it might be fun to review the three novels. You too may want to read them and then vote for a winner at www.abajournal.gov. Voting closes June 30.
“Proof: A Caroline Auden Legal Thriller” is the follow-up novel to C. E. Tobisman’s debut thriller, “Doubt.”
In that novel, Tobisman introduced Caroline Auden. We learned she is something of a genius at information technology, but gave up a career in that field to go to law school.
Caroline was, of course, a spectacular law student who landed a job at Hale Stern, a big Los Angeles firm, but quit after only one month to start a solo practice. There had been trouble. Fighting a corrupt biotech company, Caroline had obtained evidence by hacking a hospital computer, then been betrayed by her colleagues. Her own father had helped her and so risked prison.
The action in “Proof” starts fast. Caroline’s grandmother, a resident of “The Pastures Assisted Living” dies and Caroline learns she had handwritten a new will, leaving her estate to a charity called Oasis. This organization, she learns, operates soup kitchens, shelters and retraining programs for those in need, including the homeless. One of the programs is for certified nurse assistant. So far so good. But after training, these individuals, usually women, are placed by Oasis in nursing homes, to become friends with the aging and persuade many of them to change their wills, leaving everything to Oasis.
This process, however slimy, is essentially legal. But, Caroline fears, these elderly may be hastened along, that is murdered.
Searching for proof, Caroline digs. The head of Oasis is an LA big shot -- a celebrity real estate developer who makes a lot of public-private partnerships with the city government, sometimes including land swaps. The sources of his funding are unknown.
At a city council meeting we hear this pompous fellow speak, describing the deal under discussion.
“‘This is going to be a terrific project. One of the best. I build huge, tremendous projects and this will be the most tremendous yet.’ He threw in a smile for the cameras at the back of the room.”
I smiled, too.
As Caroline digs into this conspiracy, forces are awakened. Witnesses are killed. Her own life is in danger, she’s falsely accused of crimes, and she is forced to go on the run with no preparation -- she is actually barefoot -- and hide out among the homeless of Los Angeles. There are, we are told, 200,000 on the streets, one of them her uncle Hitch, an alcoholic and ex-policeman.
With her uncle’s help, Caroline assembles her gang, a kind of mentally ill, foul-smelling Dirty Dozen. One is an ex-Army ranger with fighting skills, another a schizophrenic computer genius; several are talented scavengers.
The reader learns a lot about this homeless subculture barely hidden from view: how penniless people find food, clothes, shelter, what substitutes for currency.
From her base in the homeless underground, Caroline investigates, using what resources she can assemble, especially her remarkable, if semi-legal, hacking skills. Paranoia mounts, especially Caroline’s, who is herself prone to mania, anxiety and obsessiveness as well. We are told “a furnace of energy lived within her.”
Caroline sometimes calms herself using Greek “worry beads.” Her condition is inherited: her mother suffers from mania which sometimes manifests in wild shopping sprees. “Caroline recalled her mother grabbing fistfuls of shirts from the display tables, the personal shopping assistant gleefully suggesting accessories to go with each. The mood had been elating. Festive.”
In spite of her difficulties, Caroline perseveres.
Were those old folks murdered? How far does the conspiracy go? Are there crooked assistant district attorneys involved, police, city councilmen?
As in one of those alien invasion movies, where can you go for help? Can you even trust the sheriff or has he too been taken over by the body snatchers?
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.