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Judgment Day by Sheldon Siegel

Pace is the Trick

Henry Miller once said that the best place to read a novel is under a tree. That speaks for itself. But writers still debate on the myriad of ways to write a novel -- do you pull a Hemingway and type in long stretches standing up? Do you evoke Twain and recline in bed for a while?

In the 1980s, if you took the train to work in Chicago, you might have seen Scott Turow scribbling what later became known as Presumed Innocent. Critics praised the rapid but even pacing of the novel which might have been affected by his commute. Judgment Day, by Bay Area corporate attorney Sheldon Siegel, is the sixth in a series of crime novels involving ex-husband and wife team attorney Mike Daley and Rosie Fernandez. The ex-spouses get hired to try to stop the execution of a notorious mob lawyer, Nate Fineman, who is scheduled to be “released” from Death Row in a week’s time.

Each chapter heading literally reminds the reader how much time has elapsed and how many days Fineman has to live. This proves a necessary device because without it, the novel feels as if it had been written under a tree. There is something too breezy about the pacing of this novel. Daley wanders the halls following up on the sketch details of Fineman’s case involving the murder of three at a Chinatown restaurant. Because Fineman defended drug dealers in his tenure as an attorney, no one believes he is worthy of further defense, much less investigation into a case that is ten years old. Fernandez balks at first, but then hungers for the retainer, Daley’s brother refuses to help but is somewhat intrigued by the fact that their now deceased father might have been involved with the case so he too gives in.

The partnership between Daley and Fernandez is supposed to have torque: they work together, parent together, but they don’t live together. This too, reads like torque on paper only. They are domesticated, in fact, during the course of the novel Fernandez pines for a kitchen renovation, and it doesn’t get more Marin county than that. No one reads any of their exchanges and says to herself, “Tracy and Hepburn.”

It’s fun to read about familiar locales such as Yank Sing but often times they feel explained rather than lived in, such as this introduction to Original Joes: “ Original Joes was opened in 1937 by a Croatian immigrant…as a 14 stool diner with a narrow counter and sawdust on the floor.”

Raymond Chandler wrote that the murder novel has a depressing way of “answering its own questions” which should be a familiar rule to any trial attorney. Chandler’s ideal investigator was a “poor man, a man of honor…he talks as the man of his age talks with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” All in all, Mike Daley is a little too sanitized to be Chandler’s ideal. The wrong place to see your local Death Row detective is at Whole Foods.

Judgment Day by Sheldon Siegel
MacAdam Cage
Published May 16, 2008
Hardcover, $26
ISBN: 13-978-1-59692-290-7
400 pages