In 1958, "Anatomy of a Murder," by Robert Traver, became a best seller. Its hero, Paul ("Polly") Biegler, practiced law in Iron Cliffs County on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, smoked Italian cigars and loved fishing. He dealt with a court clerk named Clovis, and befriended an eloquent (and occasionally verbose) older lawyer much given to Irish brogue. Biegler referred nostalgically to his old criminal law professor, J.B. "Jabby" White, and was blessed with a loyal, long-suffering secretary named Maida. Defending a man charged with murder, Biegler relied on an arcane medical and legal theory -- and took a nap between the end of trial and the return of the jury.
Now comes "People Versus Kirk," also by Robert Traver. Its hero, Frederic ("Fritz") Ludlow, practices law in Iron Cliffs County on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, smokes Italian cigars and loves fishing. He deals with a court clerk named Clovis, and has as his partner an eloquent (and occasionally verbose) older lawyer sometimes given to a "kind of local tavern talk with Dublinesque overtones." Ludlow refers nostalgically to his old criminal law professor, J.B. "Jabby" Waite, and is blessed with a loyal, long-suffering secretary named Monica. Defending a man charged with murder, Ludlow relies on an arcane medical and legal theory -- and takes a nap between the end of the trial and return of the jury.
You may detect parallels. There are others. They do not extend to quality. St. Martin's Press is touting "People Versus Kirk" as the greatest trial novel since "Anatomy of a Murder," which it may be. But a worthy successor it is not. Instead, it is never offensive, usually pleasant and sometimes engaging.
"Anatomy of a Murder" deserved its best-seller status. It offered a length and breadth "People Versus Kirk" does not, created characters who stuck in the mind, and drew readers into the world of the courthouse, the tautness of trial, and the tensions of advocacy and ethics as few books before or since have done.
In answer to those riches, "People Versus Kirk" offers a premise. Ludlow has a problem. His client, Randall Kirk, faces a charge of first-degree murder -- and says he can't remember where he was or what he was doing when the victim died. Ludlow also has a solution, if he can persuade the judge to let him try it: memory recall through hypnosis.
So much for the premise; premises are made to be broken. Without characters who are more than plot devices and dialogue that recalls human speech, their disintegration becomes certain. A newspaper clipping to speed along the exposition is a time-honored device, but hackneyed. Unexplained dead ends first tease, and then irritate. (Ludlow's partner is revealed early on to have fallen in love with their secretary, and the relationship is not mentioned again.) The dialogue includes lines at which Barbara Cartland might blush: " 'Ah Connie, Connie,' he murmured. 'How can mere clumsy words ever tell the state of enchantment, of suspended ecstasy and bliss that came over me when we two were together. Time itself seemed to halt and yet there was always the strange feeling that I was being with her for the first time.' "
Author Robert Traver (a pseudonym for former Michigan Supreme Court justice John Voelker) does his best to spice the stew. The dialogue includes not only true romance, but atrocious puns. " 'Speaking of cream, I'm utterly cowed,' Hugh Salter said, shaking his head. 'Did I hear you say udderly?' my partner inquired.") The caricatures of the judge, sheriff and court clerk are pure burlesque. And the victim is the obligatory rich socialite, who had the also obligatory unexpected sexual entanglements.
At last comes the trial, and a quickening of the pace. The hitherto problematic dialogue takes on a new crispness. A note surfaces which the defendant admits is in his handwriting, but which he claims to know nothing about. An elderly housekeeper testifies to seeing defendant and victim together just before the victim's death -- and reveals herself as an ardent voyeur.
The vigor of the trial scenes suggests that the author has at last reached the setting he loves. Ironically, these same scenes brought my one legal distress. Ludlow serves not only as defense counsel, but as the first-person narrator. To sustain suspense, the author contrives to keep Ludlow ignorant of the answers his witnesses will give until they speak in court. Even a fictional defendant would be entitled to sue so ill-prepared a lawyer and to move that any conviction be overturned.
The trial, in any case, begins only after one-third of the book is done and, for the reader if not the defendant, may come too late. Unlike its predecessor, "People Versus Kirk" never creates a word beyond the trial transcript; its premise alone is not enough.