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Monday, May 28, 2012


When the Killing's Done: A Novel (Paperback)  is a captivating book, and well written. T.C. Boyle has an uncanny knack for presenting a story that seems entirely factual. He gets you to say "That guy's really done his research. He knows what he is talking about." Boyle had me believing, abandoning my innate skepticism. Then he went a bridge too far and wrote some stuff that happens to be up my professional alley.

Here's the set-up:
Dave is charged with a crime along with Wilson. Wilson cops a plea and gets a very light sentence. No explanation for the deal is provided. It seemed to me the government had a pretty strong case. But why would the government want to give one co-conspirator a light sentence while still having to go to trial on the other guy 'Dave goes to trial' unless you had an agreement for his testimony? Wilson doesn't testify. Not bloody likely, I say, to this plotting. I've been a trial lawyer for more than forty years. I'm not buying one bit of it. So a really important scene in the overall story is flawed. And it affects, or infects everything that follows. I'm not going to be a spoiler. The verdict is irrelevant to my point. Boyle is working his credibility angle with his account of a trial and he lost points with me.

Then Boyle goes off the charts and into an abyss with his account of the eviction of the sheep ranchers. I'm sorry. This kind of verbal, draconian "you've got two weeks to pack up and git" edict might have been credible in the nineteenth century but it is off the charts fanciful for what would have happened in the nineteen eighties or nineties. A real-life el patron swooping down to evict hard-working sheepherders by killing off their lambs! Selling the opportunity to kill your tenants' animals to hunters! My God. This would have been big news. There would have been lawyers up and down the coast vying to take this case pro bono and spin it into a landlord-tenant, farmers versus hunters, end-of-an-era lamenters political outrage du jour.  You can't pass this grossly illegal as well as unjust eviction off as just a circumstance. Not in the context of the way you chose to write this book.

And then Boyle, for no discernible benefit to the story, commits another round of legal mayhem, attempting to convince us that Alma, the government scientist could get arrested on the complaint of the lawyer for Dave LaJoy, that he'd been detained illegally on an island where he was a trespasser, in possession of a dead body to boot. Boyle should know well enough that it requires a charge by a D.A. and a warrant by a judge to make an arrest not committed in the presence of the police, or victim, and no D.A. is going to go after a criminal charge and get an arrest warrant on the facts Boyle presents. Much less would they require Alma to post a bond for her release from custody on Dave LaJoy's complaint! All the good work goes down the drain when Boyle fuels his narrative with crap cloaked in ersatz legalize.

"When The Killing Is Done" presents an opportunity to underscore the fact that even excellent writers should consult real lawyers, who have relevant experience, before they plunge into courtroom scenes or legal plot points. This probably goes for a lot of other kinds of expertise too. Boyle, no doubt, has done some thorough research in this book, but it is interspersed with dubious propositions. He describes a courtroom well. Unfortunately, he is a three-time loser when it comes to legal issues and ought to be put on some kind of writer's probation for lending credence to legal absurdities. Perhaps this sounds extreme, but he is exploiting his credibility in areas where he has no business being left alone unattended and after turning the last page, it is clear that all of these improbable scenes should be redacted.

Boyle writes an enjoyable book. But don't fall for his stories. Especially when he tries to go legal on you. We have enough false assumptions and wrong ideas about how courts work without Boyle's contribution, especially because he is so effective in making himself sound knowledgeable.

Now, I am not going to claim Boyle could have read See You In Court and gotten it right. I didn't foresee this circumstance, but I do recommend running these kinds of scenarios by someone who really knows what they're talking about. Especially if it is an important scene and you are looking for verisimilitude in your writing.  I know most people won't care, and say I'm quibbling, but it  just takes away from the confidence you want to have that you're not being bullshitted.

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