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Alaskan's stellar murder mystery is a thoughtful page-turner

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 23, 2015

Injustice

By Lee Goodman; Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2015; 338 pages; $26 hardcover (on sale Sept. 15)

Last year Lee Goodman, a former attorney and commercial salmon fisherman who lives outside of Anchorage, published his first book -- the legal thriller "Indefensible." That book received high praise as a complex and intelligent read, with Publishers Weekly calling it "stellar."

Goodman has followed that auspicious beginning with another book starring the same federal prosecutor, Nick Davis, in what we can only hope will be a continuing series. This second novel, taking place in the present, brings us forward four years from the end of the first. The love interest in "Indefensible" is now a wife with a small child, and the teenage daughter is now a high school grad with ambitions of her own. Our protagonist, Nick, is the same complicated character grappling with issues of right, wrong, moral ambiguity and loyalty.

This is not to say that one needs to read "Indefensible" before reading "Injustice." Each book can stand alone. But in combination, they fit together in a way that enhances both.

Comparisons to Turow

Both follow in the tradition of Scott Turow's acclaimed "Presumed Innocent" and are worthy of the comparison. Beyond the fact that Goodman, like Turow, is a lawyer-writer (or writer-lawyer) and writes from an insider's understanding of the legal landscape, Goodman has created a hybrid work that spans the divisions between literary and genre fiction. "Indefensible" and "Injustice," while extremely well-plotted as murder mysteries, are also character-driven inquiries into important cultural questions. The prose does much more than tell a great story; it sings.

True to the genre, "Injustice" features a murder near its beginning. Because the victim is "family," Nick is drawn into the investigation. Meanwhile, in his federal prosecutor role, he's involved in a case involving political corruption. His wife, working for the Innocence Project, is trying to access forensic evidence that might exonerate a low-IQ man from a murder conviction eight years earlier. All of this takes place in a fictional town that appears to be in New England or upstate New York -- somewhere with old mill buildings reclaimed for offices and boutiques, pine forests and reservoirs, and a restaurant that specializes in bowls of clams. (Goodman grew up in Massachusetts and Vermont, and he captures this part of the country well.)

Nick serves as the narrator, starting in the seclusion of a lake cabin to write up events some months after the murder. Because the entire novel, like the first, filters through Nick's first-person experience, we are taken deep into his psychological workings -- his fears, angers, doubts and joys. He is a fascinatingly flawed and sometimes explosive good-guy personality with his own demons. It's this deep character development -- not only of Nick but of the other characters we experience through his eyes -- that distinguishes this novel from those in which wooden characters are only there to move the plot along.

Here's one character, as seen by Nick: "Philbin was a jowly guy with sunken, disinterested eyes. He wore a suit jacket that made me think of a tarp you throw over a baby grand when you repaint the living room. He wore a wedding band that was sunk into the flesh of his finger like fence wire through the trunk of a maple."

The plot, however, is as good as -- or better than -- any you'll find. This is a page-turner, full of surprises and only the occasional need to suspend disbelief. For the most part, this story might really have happened. We might know these people, and we might imagine ourselves in similar circumstances.

Political corruption

Alaskans might particularly enjoy the storyline about the political corruption case, which will seem familiar to those who lived through the scandal that resulted in the convictions of Sen. Ted Stevens (later set aside), VECO Corp.'s Bill Allen and others. In the novel, state legislators have been paid laughably small amounts to secure their votes against tax legislation related to natural gas development. The guy the prosecutors are after rose from being a high school dropout to establish a company that serviced the gas industry in more ways than one.

The bribes weren't always money: "Sometimes they'd send a ... work crew over to build you that new deck on the back of your house, or they'd install that new kitchen and then they'd kind of forget to bill you." When millions of dollars are found to be missing and people start dying, the case becomes much more serious than stalled legislation.

The storyline related to the Innocence Project is equally fascinating. In an author's note at the end, Goodman explains that, although the book's characters are fictional, the Innocence Project is real. He devotes a page to explaining its mission to "assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing" and the real-life obstacles to reversing wrongful convictions. The novel itself deftly shows us how innocent people can sometimes be wrongly convicted, how DNA testing is done and explained to juries, and how difficult it can be for those associated with the justice system to accept its imperfections.

With his two books, Alaskan Lee Goodman has established himself as a writer of national consequence, deserving of a wide readership.

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."

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