Tuesday 21 November 2017

Review: Guilt By Association by Marcia Clark

Mulholland Books, €15.99

HAIR AND NOW: Marcia Clark has left behind her prosecutor's perm and gone for something
straight — unlike her novel, which has many a twist and turn. Photo: Jae C Hong-Pool
HAIR AND NOW: Marcia Clark has left behind her prosecutor's perm and gone for something straight — unlike her novel, which has many a twist and turn. Photo: Jae C Hong-Pool
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It has been 16 years since Marcia Clark rested her case at the end of the tumultuous OJ Simpson trial.

And in that time, the former prosecutor has been busy -- she carried on being a lawyer for a bit, wrote a bestselling memoir, got rid of that memorably unfortunate perm and settled into life as a talking head on many of America's news shows (where there is a "trial of the century" at least twice a year).

The past five years, however, have been spent toiling quietly on her first novel, a doorstep-sized crime thriller entitled Guilt by Association. On one level, it's a transparent attempt to further cash in on her fame since the trial (in which, let's not forget, she failed to secure a conviction). But on another level, it's clear that Clark isn't slapping her name on any old beach read -- she worked at this and it has paid off in a deftly written, tightly plotted debut, full of memorable twists and deep, rich characterisations.

Based in Los Angeles, the plot centres on District Attorney Rachel Knight, who works in the elite Special Trials unit -- a division of the prosecutor's office which becomes involved in cases during the police investigation rather than afterwards, as is usually the case.

When her colleague and friend Jake Pahlmeyer is found dead in a seedy hotel alongside a young male hustler, the cops suspect a murder-suicide situation, but Rachel, in the tried and trusted manner of crime protagonists, tries to snoop around and draw her own conclusions while salvaging her friend's legacy.

Meanwhile, she has to take over one of Jake's cases, involving the rape of an extremely wealthy young woman, whose well-connected father is screaming for justice. The two plots interweave as Rachel puts her own reputation on the line to solve the crimes.

Knight is "tenacious, wise-cracking and fiercely intelligent" -- and clearly Clark's alter ego, albeit a bit younger and minus that perm. The former prosecutor told the LA Times last week that Knight's "flaws are mine -- her good parts are hers". Rachel drinks Glenlivet whisky, keeps pretzels in her desk drawer, reads grisly detective novels and wears "believe me suits" to court. It's these details and the fission of autobiography that make her a compelling protagonist.

The authenticity of the descriptions of the crime scenes and the court hearings shine through here also. Whether Rachel is sizing up a judge in court, swapping anecdotes with colleagues, or tagging along on a police investigation, Clark shows an eye for the credible little details that really carry this book. First-time novelists generally don't have the time or the money to invest in the type of research that results in this level of believability. Clark doesn't need to; she lived it.

As with her first career, Clark is breaking into a largely male-dominated profession; the giants of American crime-lit (Scott Turow, Michael Crichton, James Ellroy -- who chimes in with generous praise on the dust jacket) have mostly been men, and with her richly detailed descriptions of her characters' clothes, hair and bearing, Clark makes a distinctively feminine stamp on the genre.

There's a tinge of Sex and the City (minus the horrible puns) to some of these martini lunches. The quips and the swearing with which this book is liberally seasoned must seem a few light years away from the dry legal prose she was required to write during her time as a prosecutor.

Some may see parallels with the Simpson trial -- a backdrop of racial tension and some perceptions of racism. Clark told the LA Times that: "To the extent that I have any political message in the book, it's that I'd like to see women love and support each other more ... Women are unfairly depicted as competitive with one another in a way that's unnecessary and counterproductive.

"If there's one thing I consciously set out to do, it's to say it doesn't have to be that way."

Now 57, Clark will probably always be best known for her role as a real-life prosecutor. But her name is surprisingly discreet -- smaller than the title for instance -- on the cover of this book, and her skills as a writer give this title more than pure nostalgia value. Her publishers are banking on her too: a sequel is due out next year.

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