The Guilty Die Twice: A Legal Thriller
by Don Hartshorn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)
The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one
side to the story.
The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.
Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying
the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.
You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.
On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is
those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.
The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.
Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost
become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.
Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed
to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.
Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.The Guilty Die Twice
isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.
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