John Jay Osborn Jr. went to Harvard Law School and became a novelist, and although his new novel, "The Man Who Owned New York," is darker and less amusing than "The Paper Chase" and "The Associates," the legal profession's loss continues to be the reader's gain.
"The Man Who Owned New York" centers on Robert Fox, as 36-year-old trusts and estates partner in a Wall Street law firm. Fox is bored, disaffected, "wrapped-tight," as he puts it, inept at finding happiness at anything other than neatly tying up other people's lives. His current concern is the estate of Mrs. Belinda Meecham Sifford, a fabulously old and fabulously wealthy woman; his current problem is that Mrs. Sifford's estate is inexplicably short some $3.2 million.
Accompanying Fox on his search for the missing millions are Kim Hartman, an art appraiser haunted by the past ("all the dogs I've kicked, the slimy boys who thought they had some hold on me because they had a piece of my emotions for maybe 20 seconds, not to mention my body. I'm going to get pregnant, Fox, because I didn't use contraception 15 years ago"); Fluffy Ravenal, Kim's assistant, who packs a Radcliffe degree, a thick southern accent and a gun; and Jackson, the archetypal Wall Street law firm associate ("I see your little tumblers spinning in your big bank mind," says Fox. "The last time Jackson had forgotten something was his lunch, once, in kindergarten.").
Osborn's plot, if contrived at times, gives him the opportunity to explore wryly upper-class Manhattan and white-shoe law practice. ("Fox had been through a lot of messy estates, and funny divorce actions, and times when people had threatened to kill each other; rich young couples had stood at each side of his desk screaming at each other . . . and once, a young girl who was trying to give 15 million to the Moonies but was unable to because of the way Fox had drafted her trust fund had gone right out on his window edge and threatened to jump . . . But he had never once had the police involved in anything, that was not . . . the way things were done.") Osborn's ear is true and his eye, for the most part, clear, although one wishes for a bit more color, a bit less economy. Clean, spare prose is a scare commodity, but less is not always more.
With its similar setting and its armature of suspense, "The Man Who Owned New York" is reminiscent of Emma Lathen's superb John Putnam Thatcher series. Yet, even though Osborn's novel is readable and well-crafted, it suffers from the flatness that permeates his characters' lives. This failing may come from his attempt to reach beyond entertainment. Readers whose tastes do not run to analyses of anomie may long for the charming, vibrant characters who populated "The Paper Chase" and "The Associates."
Nonetheless, there is a certain excitement to John Jay Osborn's latest effort, as though with "The Man Who Owned New York" he has determined to leave his comfortable niche as a clever chronicler of fledgling counselors. With his new novel, he appears to have cast his lot with literature. At its worst, his novel is better than most, and one wishes him the best.