Sunday, March 23, 2014

Worthy Brown's Daughter

by Phillip Margolin.

Matthew Penny is managing to get by, but he's not one of the most prominent lawyers in 1860 Portland, Oregon. His frequent opponent, Caleb Barbour, is that prominent, largely due to his regular representation of wealthy businessman Benjamin Gillette, but when Barbour's black servant Worthy Brown tips Matthew off that Barbour has bribed the jury in a breach of contract case, Matthew uses the information to settle the case in his client's favor. In return he's more than willing to listen when Worthy comes to him for help in a legal matter of his own: Worthy and his daughter Roxanne were brought to Oregon as Barbour's slaves, and though Worthy was able to successfully negotiate his own freedom under the ban on slavery in Oregon's new state constitution, Barbour is refusing to release Roxanne. Meanwhile, another of Matthew's cases doesn't turn out so well, as he fails to win an acquittal for a man accused of theft when the accuser, a beautiful woman, charms the judge and jury. But Matthew himself never finds Sharon Hill enchanting at all, and he is disturbed to see that she appears to have set her sights on Benjamin Gillette just when Gillette, not best pleased about his regular lawyer's demonstrated crookedness, begins looking around for other representation and seems to be taking an interest in Matthew.

I had never read any of Margolin's contemporary legal thrillers, that not being one of my genres of choice, but this historical novel, based on a real case from mid-19th century Oregon, sounded fascinating. I wasn't disappointed, though the writing style was very different from the kind of novel I usually read: very straightforward, with short sentences and short chapters. That made it go by very quickly, though, and the story was engrossing, particularly in the interlocking moral dilemmas faced by most of the major characters. 

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