“Judgment,” Joseph Finder’s latest thriller — about a Boston judge being blackmailed into settling a sexual harassment case — isn’t so much ripped from the headlines as exactingly extracted from them. For sure, it’s timely. The current administration is one of the villains here, even if Donald Trump’s name comes up only once. A secondary character, a retired Massachusetts judge, has a dog who plays with a Trump chew toy, anyway.
Finder is an industrious researcher, and there’s lots of fascinating lore here about courtroom procedures and the professional lives of judges. He also reports in depressing detail on the frat-boy atmospherics in many big businesses that read like a #MeToo exposé.
Among the most unnerving could-be-real plot points in “Judgment” are those that show the hollowing out of the U.S. federal regulatory apparatus. When the protagonist, Judge Juliana Brody, figures out that the wicked forces threatening her career (and later, her family) originate internationally, she looks for support among contacts in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Treasury Department. The people she discreetly meets want badly to help, but they inform her that the appropriate divisions have no leaders, that frustrated staff have fled, and that whole sections of the government dealing with sanctions and world finance are all but nonexistent. We read of this grim phenomenon in the media; Finder makes it palpable in his lurid tale.
Still, it will take perseverance for some readers to make it as far as the believable juicy stuff here, given Finder’s dopey beyond words opening scene, where Judge Brody — wife of a sexy, ex-hippie law professor and mother of two teenagers — lets herself be seduced at a Chicago law conference. The resulting sex tape is what threatens her judicial independence and then her career. She’s up for a federal judgeship, but if the blackmailers carry out their threat, she can forget any seat on any bench at all.
The problem here is that the Brody character has always been a straight arrow, and there’s nothing in her marriage or elsewhere to leave her susceptible to the blandishments of an Argentinian who meets Brody in a hotel bar and murmurs to her things like, “I saw a sense of light inside you.” Brody is a trial judge who’s seen and heard it all. Outside the author’s plot-predicate wishful thinking, she would surely have told this bozo to buzz off.
There’s plenty else in the novel I didn’t believe a word of — Brody breezily talking her way past security at the home of a dangerous Russian oligarch; Her Honor sticking a switchblade in the gut of a big ex-Marine trying to strangle her. But some of Finder’s scenes do land effectively. Juliana’s 17-year-old daughter is on a research project in Namibia, but her son, Jake, is an interestingly troubled teen with a serious weed addiction who has bonded with his formerly rebellious dad, Matt, and is driven around the bend by Mom. Both Matt and Jake amusingly consider Juliana “too judgy” with the boy.
In bringing this thriller to a conclusion, Finder hews closely to what readers might expect from the genre. Exactly how events resolve I shall not disclose. Suffice it to say that the denouement feels less than believable. A Superior Court judge in Boston is unlikely to turn into Wonder Woman on a moment’s notice, or even over a lifetime. A CIA officer who assists Brody at a critical juncture tells her that the forces arrayed against her seem to have underestimated her. “They looked at you and they saw a delicate flower. . . .They didn’t see the honey bee inside, though. The bee with the very formidable stinger.” Discerning readers might just feel stung.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Joseph Finder
Dutton. 400 pp. $28