Authors sometimes get tired when they're writing a novel. They think: Wouldn't it be more fun to write about a boat blowing up, a man shotgunned to death, or the hijacking of an SST -- something really exciting? But most writers recognize some artistic limitations. Not F. Lee Bailey.
In the famous lawyer's first novel, "Secrets," the characters commit literary suicide, sacrificing themselves for the author. If Bailey feels like writing about something, he does it even if it means messing up the plot by the elimination of a major character or the development of a random ending for the book.
Indeed, the disorder in "Secrets" is so extreme, one wonders what drove Bailey to such excesses. I think the answer must be sheer panic: the reaction of a writer who, halfway through the composition of his novel, realized that it was a dud. The tortured strapping of events and characters onto the story are attempts to salvage it.
"Secrets" is about a famous criminal lawyer indicted on a phony murder rap by the people whose toes he's stepped on. To get himself acquitted, the lawyer hires a British barrister, a San Francisco hotshot and a sexy female attorney who specializes in expert testimony. This powerful defense team is ready to take everything the evil prosecution can throw at them. And the reader is waiting for the fireworks.
Unfortunately, the prosecution team is made up of morons. They raise only one interesting question: how they passed the bar. Suddenly, just as "Secrets" promised to get interesting, the book collapses as a work of suspense.
To get some drama into the material, Bailey begins inventing numberous new plots. Will the Mafia goon knock off the hero? Will the female reporter sleep with members of the defense team? Will the female defense lawyer sleep with anyone? (The answer to all these questions is yes.) None of these new plots works, and the reader begins to realize that he's being conned. Finally, Bailey gives up trying to save the novel by appending random events and, with resignation, turns back to the courtroom.
No matter what the blurbs say, the courtroom confrontation is boring. The judge wants to rule for the hero from the beginning. The villains have so little chance of winning that the hero has the defense team rest its case without presenting any evidence. (We never get to see the famous British barrister in real action -- Bailey has him get sick just before the closing argument to the jury!) Although the defense team has presented no case, the jury rules for them anyway. And the judge announces that if they hadn't, he would have overturned the verdict anyway. What's the suspense in that?
Needless to say, the mistakes in "Secrets" are so fundamental that it never had a chance: The major villain is introduced and then dropped. The most interesting lawyer (and the most fully developed character) takes the big case and then immediately resigns on the grounds of conflict of interest. We never hear from him again. Sure, the book mentions Betamax-recorded sex and airplanes that turn women on. There's also the attempted hijacking of an SST, a woman floating in the Atlantic, shotgun and dynamite killings. But none of these events relates to anything -- they don't help use understand the characters or contribute to the plot. They're just the relics of a writer whose editor forgot to tell him to take out irrelevancies. These events float in the book like random clippings from newspapers. The reader is left admiring small touches, like the old-fashioned way Bailey has given each of his short chapters a special little title.
There is one hopeful sign in "Secrets." Bailey comes alive when writing about airplanes. Different forms of flying machines pop up all over, and the descriptions of them are the best parts of the book. If F. Lee Bailey tries an aero-novel, it just might succeed.