“Corrupt Practices” is an okay title for Los Angeles lawyer Robert Rotstein’s legal thriller, but a better one might have been “Death and Desolation.” In the novel’s opening scene, Harmon Cherry, co-founder of the Macklin & Cherry law firm, puts a Glock 22 in his mouth and blows his head off. (Or was this somehow murder?) Without him, his firm implodes, and one of its ex-partners is accused of stealing millions from a religious cult. He’s tossed in jail, where he hangs himself from a water pipe. (Or was he murdered?)
A third ex-partner is unambiguously murdered, another becomes a semi-homeless meth addict, and yet another is so traumatized by his senior partner’s death that he begins to shake, stammer and get the heaves whenever he enters a courtroom. There’s also a gorgeous young law student — the best-adjusted of the bunch — who proves to have been a porn star in her teenage years.
All this devastation is actually quite readable. Rotstein’s story moves along nicely, he clearly knows the law, and he conjures up strange but interesting characters. But mostly I’ll remember “Corrupt Practices” for showcasing the most dysfunctional law firm I ever expect to come across. Don’t hire these people to handle your divorce, or somebody will wind up dead.
Our narrator, Parker Stern, is the one who now falls apart in a courtroom. When his friend Rich Baxter supposedly hangs himself in jail, Stern suspects murder. His suspicions focus on a rich, controversial, fast-growing cult called the Church of the Sanctified Assembly. The Assembly’s founder, Bradley Kelley, a sometime actor, claims that he experienced a spiritual transformation in 1978 “when he passed through a crease in the universe and communed with the Celestial Fountain of All That Is.” This exciting event convinced him that he was “God’s divine messenger on Earth.”
He convinced a lot of people that was true, and soon the Assembly was raking in millions worldwide. Stern suspects that after his now-deceased friend went to work for the Assembly, he discovered financial misdeeds that cost him his life. He thinks the Assembly is secretly laundering millions of dollars and “is nothing but a racketeering enterprise masquerading as a religion.” He also believes it once had a judge assassinated who ruled against it, and he knows for a fact that its elders, male and female, take part in ritualistic sex with starry-eyed, salvation-seeking young acolytes.
If all this faith-based evildoing reminds you of a certain real-world cult, so be it. As Charlie Brown said, when asked whether he believed in Santa Claus, I refuse to become involved in a religious discussion.
Stern struggles to discover whether his friend was killed by the Assembly or by someone from their now-defunct law firm. He loathes the Assembly in part because, when he was a well-paid child actor, his mother and her boyfriend stole his money, joined the cult and gave it his hard-earned cash. Things become more complicated because Brad Kelley — before he became God’s messenger — was a small-time actor who was in one movie with Stern, as was a movie-star-turned-congressman who may be helping the Assembly bribe governments to admit it to places where decent folks don’t want it.
Stern takes on the Assembly in court, although he can barely speak. None of this affects his performance in bed, though, as he proves with an ex-partner who now runs a coffee shop as well as with the porn-star-turned-law-student. He’s also involved in a First Amendment case in which he’s helping defend a woman who writes really vile kiddie porn but believes she ranks right up there with Nabokov and Henry Miller.
Still, violence, not sex, is the primary concern here, and Stern’s quest for justice leads him to a showdown that features three lawyers, two guns and the final curtain for someone. I don’t know if this novel reflects what it’s like to be a lawyer in Los Angeles, but if you have any young friends who aspire to a legal career, don’t give them this book. At least not unless you suspect they’re budding psychopaths, in which case they’ll eat it up.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Robert Rotstein
Seventh Street. 359 pp. Paperback. $15.95