Money Does Dallas

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, October 17, 2005

THE COLOR OF LAW

By Mark Gimenez

Doubleday. 401 pp. $19.95

Mark Gimenez's publisher compares the lawyer-turned-novelist to John Grisham, but "The Color of Law" is more than just a highly readable legal thriller. It's also a blistering attack on both the legal profession and super-rich Texans in Dallas, where the action unfolds. Gimenez, the jacket copy says, was once a partner in a major Dallas law firm, and from the evidence of his first novel, he was not a happy camper. The same scorn that Grisham lavished on plaintiffs' lawyers in "The King of Torts," Gimenez inflicts on rich corporate lawyers and on the Town of Highland Park, the gilded Dallas enclave where many of them live. His title refers to the saying that the color of the law is green, like money, but he could as easily have called his book "The Case Against Dallas." His indictment doesn't leave much room for a defense.

He tells his story through 35-year-old Scott Fenney, a poor boy whose football exploits, first at Highland Park High School (where he followed in the legendary footsteps of Doak Walker and Bobby Layne) and then at Dallas's Southern Methodist University, have helped him rise to partner in the city's most powerful law firm. When we meet Fenney, he is earning $750,000 a year, lives in a $3.5 million mansion, drives a $200,000 Ferrari and is married to a onetime SMU cheerleader who is the most beautiful woman in Highland Park. His home and car are heavily mortgaged, and his wife is no longer interested in sex, at least with him, but he remains a Master of the Universe, Dallas-style.

Then a federal judge, impressed by an idealistic (and entirely insincere) speech Fenney made about lawyers making the world a better place, appoints him to represent Shawanda Jones, a black prostitute and heroin addict accused of killing a quite worthless white man. The problem is that the victim's father is the state's senior U.S. senator, a multimillionaire oilman who is running for president. He is determined that the woman will be convicted and that his son's history of beating and raping women will not come out. Great pressure is brought on Fenney to drop the case. But he does have a little idealism left and, what's more, he takes Shawanda's 8-year-old daughter, Pajamae, home, where she quickly bonds with his own 8-year-old daughter. So will he risk his career, as his wife bitterly demands to know, for a junkie whore? And even if he does, can he possibly exonerate the woman in the face of undisputed evidence that her gun killed the man?

It's a tasty plot -- big money, political intrigue, sexy wives, precocious little girls -- but the novel would be a lot less fun without Gimenez's scathing portrait of the city and its most powerful citizens. We're told that lawyers regard rich clients as chickens to be plucked and that judges are there to be bought by campaign contributions. Fenney reflects that every lawyer goes through a metamorphosis "like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, only in reverse: from a beautiful human being to a slimy lawyer." Such are their evil deeds that "all lawyers lead such a Jekyll-and-Hyde life, diligently maintaining a strict separation between their dual lives, lying to their wives and children, and hiding their lawyer lives like a drug addict hides his illegal habit." Even the two little girls figure out that Fenney and Shawanda are a lot alike since both are highly paid, by the hour, for services of a personal nature.

But you knew all that about lawyers. What you may not know is what a sexist, racist, greedy, hypocritical place Highland Park is. "It's an island of white in an ocean of color," Gimenez writes. During Fenney's youth, his mother rented a small house there and "renters occupied a social status in Highland Park only a step above the Mexican household help." That household help, we're told, is probably there illegally, but won't be bothered by the INS. If a Mexican woman gets pregnant, though, she's out of there because her child wouldn't be welcome in the schools. Fenney's coldly calculating wife resolved early to "sell her beauty for community property," and when we meet her, she's scheming to run the annual Cattle Barons' Ball, at which "the sophisticated men and women of Highland Park get to dress up like cowboys and cowgirls and play Texan to the hilt."

If you are not overly fond of big-bucks Texans, all this is a delight. Gimenez's portrait of Dallas is venomous, vivid and obviously heartfelt. But he also stacks the deck to a degree that becomes annoying. Not content to present affluent whites as knaves and fools, he must also make blacks, Mexicans and the occasional idealistic white unfailingly pure of heart, to the point that things sometimes get sappy. When little Pajamae asks Fenney if her mother will be freed and they can all live happily ever after, he warns her that happy endings only happen in fairy tales. But ultimately Gimenez is writing his own fairy tale, where courtroom miracles occur, rich lawyers are redeemed and little girls from the projects are saved. That's fine if you're aiming at bestsellerdom, but I doubt he really thinks that's how the story would end in the Dallas he knows so well.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company