MAY 20, 2016
FATHERS SAVING (or trying to save) daughters has long been the subject of theater, literature, and film — think of Dumas, fils’ Camille or any of the recent Liam Neeson Taken series. But attorney Anthony Franze’s new novel, The Advocate’s Daughter, tells a somewhat different tale: a father trying to solve the murder of his daughter and save her reputation. Franze is a noted appellate lawyer among the elite who regularly practice before the US Supreme Court, and his protagonist (it’s hard to call him a hero, as will be seen) is one of the same: Sean Serrat is a lawyer formerly in the Solicitor General’s office who, as the novel opens, has just left his government job to cash in at a top appellate DC law firm.
Serrat seems to have the perfect life: smart, attractive yoga-pants wife (a former lawyer herself), brilliant beautiful daughter in law school, and two sons, one the typical moody teen, the other a witty seven-year-old. But in the back of Sean’s mind looms the unspoken memory of his unwitting part as a teen himself in the tragic and hushed-up murder of a shopkeeper in Okinawa. In a twist on the old adage, the point of Franze’s novel seems to be the sins of the Father are visited upon the Daughter, for it is Abby, his daughter, who is found dead and apparently raped in the library of the US Supreme Court.
Caught in the police’s crosshairs as the prime suspect is Abby’s boyfriend, Malik, a black law clerk for the Supreme Court. Sean’s initial willingness to believe the murder solved by his arrest is unsettled by a visit from Malik’s defense counsel, named Hellstrom, who appeals to Sean’s legal training to question the quick decision to prosecute his client. The evidence is lacking, and perhaps, Hellstrom suggests, the prosecution is a little too quick to pin it on a black man. The racially charged case provokes a media frenzy while Sean begins to develop his own doubts about Malik’s guilt. The Advocate’s Daughter then spins headlong into the story of Sean’s convoluted efforts to solve the mystery of Abby’s murder.
Lawyers by trade are storytellers, and good lawyers tell good stories — Franze’s book is a case in point. From Abby’s murder on, the book moves at a brisk, almost breakneck speed. Franze is not a literary stylist; his prose is straightforward and descriptive, and his narrative strictly chronological. The opening line gives a sense of the lean writing: “It all started with a bottle of Nikka whiskey and a cold stare.” Some chapters are just two or three pages long and just about every one ends with a crisply worded phrase and a twist that urges the reader to turn the page. Another example: “You were there for me. And you were at my house the night Billy Brice was killed. We ate pasta. End of story.”
Serrat’s tribulations in seeking the truth about his daughter’s death are engaging if improbable — far from exhibiting the judgment expected of a seasoned appellate counsel, Serrat acts with the recklessness of an adolescent with an incompletely formed frontal cortex. Among other things, he pulls a gun on a high school drug dealer (called Chipotle Man), climbs in a car with drugged up stalker carrying a knife, gets beaten up and knocked out (several times), and ends up in a gun fight in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Oh yes, in the midst of all this, Sean is nominated for a Supreme Court seat. Serrat arrives at his interview with the president unable to conceal a shining black eye.
Franze offers Supreme Court junkies plenty of tidbits about the nation’s highest court. The Supreme Court of this novel is an imaginary one; a fictional Chief Justice (named Malburg) appears to be a dead ringer for Ruth Bader Ginsburg (were it only so!). Following the familiar admonition, Franze writes about what he knows: the courtroom where lawyers argue before the Nine Supremes, the marble steps ascending to the Court’s oversized bronze doors, its vaulted library, and the secret Senatorial offices in the Capitol building.
Franze is a Beltway Insider, and his book gives us a peek into the insular world of the nation’s highest court and our lawmakers. As a mystery writer, Franze does a good job. The clues are there and — yes — there is a surprise at the end that I should have seen coming. Franze writes with evident reverence for the Supreme Court as an institution, but this story, replete with corrupt justices, lying cops, underhanded lawyers, and secretive senators, does not instill much in the way respect for the system. The book doesn’t have a trial, but it does have a hell of a good hearing on a motion to suppress evidence. Being a lawyer himself, Franze avoids the inaccuracies that often spoil (at least for me, a practicing attorney) courtroom scenes.
Verdict: For legal mystery fans, The Advocate’s Daughter will do quite well in your beach bag for a good summer read.