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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Review: Ron Liebman's "Death by Rodrigo"

Long ago in the spring of 1979, when I was the incoming book review editor for the Texas Law Review, the out-going book review editor told me a secret:

"Book publishers like to see their books reviewed in serious periodicals like ours," he said. "Sells more books. So if you write them a letter asking nicely, most times they'll send us a free 'review copy' of their new books! You can skim the book and see if you think it's worth reviewing. Sometimes, though, you can tell even before you get it that a book is going to be worth our reviewing, so you don't have to wait for the book. You can go ahead and start lining up a reviewer, and then forward the book as soon as you get it."

And thus I learned that part of my job was to scour the pages of magazines and newspapers that mentioned newly-released, or even soon anticipated, books about legal topics, to consider them as possible candidates for which we'd seek distinguished law professors to write book reviews for the Texas Law Review. The professors, of course, got to keep the books, but still: What a deal! Free books — and new ones, in hardback!


'Death by Rodrigo' Fast-forward twenty-seven years. I get a really polite email from a well-spoken publicist at Simon & Schuster, a serious publishing company on anyone's list of serious publishing companies, asking me if I'd like a review copy of Ron Liebman's new novel, Death by Rodrigo. "Sure," I write back. The book arrives in the mail a few days later with a nice hand-written note on embossed note-card stock from the publicist enclosed. Very classy. No visible strings.

And objectively, this is the kind of handsome book I might have bought out of my own pocket in an airport bookstore somewhere anyway, because I like books, and I like hardbacks, and I like books about courtroom lawyers — and from the jacket blurb raves, this particular one sounds like it will be pretty funny. And I'm not particularly offended by the jacket art. Hey, it's discreet; I've seen truck mudflaps that are much more raunchy. When I'm in airport bookstores, I don't look for books with silhouettes of strippers pole-dancing on inverted gavels, but that's no reason not to buy a book, is it?

I hit the internet before I open the book. Liebman, per his law firm's website and the looseleaf promo sheet also enclosed with the book, is a senior partner in the litigation section of a serious Washington law firm, Patton Boggs. Pretty interesting résumé, even discounting for the puffery inherent in all such online efforts: Among other things, he apparently had something to do as an AUSA prosecuting Spiro Agnew once upon a time, which must have been a hoot (while, of course, being very, very serious business). He clerked for a U.S. District Judge in Baltimore back in the day, which means he'd seen the soup-to-nuts practice even before he arrived inside the Beltway. That's intriguing. War-horse, not show-horse, stuff.

The promo sheet also says he "plays in a rock band," though. Oh. Really? They were smart to leave that off the book jacket.

Nineteen pages into the book, however — at the end of Chapter One — I just hated it. "Wow," I thought to myself, "I'd like to keep getting nice free books from Simon & Schuster, but not at the price of writing a puff-piece review on my blog that I don't really mean." It's funny enough, I'm thinking, but not quite as funny as I'd been led to believe by the jacket blurbs. It doesn't seem very novel, as novels go.

But then the book really surprised me, at the beginning of Chapter Two.


The punch that jolts you is the one you didn't see coming. That's true in the boxing ring, and it's true in fiction, including legal fiction. I'm not going to put any spoilers in this review, but I will tell you that on page 22, Liebman landed a solid left uppercut on me.

Anyone reviewing, or even just reading, this book will not be able to avoid drawing comparisons to HBO's The Sopranos. It's inevitable, because Liebman's protagonist is an Italian-heritage criminal defense lawyer who lives in New Jersey and whose nickname, for Pete's sake, is "Junne," like "Junior," like "Uncle Junior." And for other reasons. But don't assume that you'll be stuck on those comparisons as you work through this novel.

Ron Liebman For one thing: Start with David Margulies, the fabulous character actor who played Neil Mink — (still wondering?) — who was Tony Soprano's regular lawyer (oh, him). Make him 20, but not 30, years younger. Then move your map over a few hundred yards culturally, but about 90 miles southwest geographically, from Newark to Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia. Then move your law firm indicator down and diagonally two notches, to the kind of lawyer who's two full steps below Mink but still one step above the barely surviving public defender — to the kind of street-smart, public school criminal defense lawyer who subleases his office space, but who disdains indigent appointments, but who has to keep his continuing reputation among the city's non-mobbed pimps and drug-dealers constantly in mind. An ex-cop criminal defense lawyer who got his law degree from night school and had a really hard time passing the bar, but who has a line of metaphorical notches on his six-shooters from having slain "white-shoe" hotshot opponents in jury trials, and from whom the mighty and powerful may well find themselves well obliged to seek counsel when they need down-and-dirty legal representation. (Meaning, when they're guilty as sin.) The kind of lawyer from whom a basically honest jail guard might borrow $20 until the next payday when he really needs it, not in exchange for anything crooked, but just because they respect each other for working hard in crummy jobs, one of which pays a little better than the other.

Usually I read lawyer fiction in hopes of seeing some really brilliant courtroom riffs that I might steal, or at least profit from. That's not this book. The courtroom scenes are all from pretrial hearings, and while there are winners and losers, heroes and goats, those scenes can best be described as gritty and realistic, rather than glib or instructional.

On the other hand, I don't usually expect lawyer books to leave me rubbing my chin, wondering about the "human condition." Liebman's book is subtly provocative, ambiguous, and thereby ultimately lifelike. Oh, it does have some laugh-out-loud passages. But it's not a collection of war-stories, and it's not a romp.


Bottom-line, it entertained me while I read it, but a day after finishing it, Death by Rodrigo has left me still thinking about it on both personal and professional levels. That's a surprise — a pleasant one, actually. I'll leave you to decide for yourself if my judgment has been compromised by getting it for free, or by the fact that I'll make some fractional portion of a dollar if you choose to order it in hardback from Amazon via the link above. But here's Beldar's thumb — pointed up.

Posted by Beldar at 09:04 AM in Books, Law (2007) | Permalink


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(1) Dan S made the following comment | Sep 26, 2007 9:28:01 AM | Permalink

Nice review, Beldar. Warns us not to fall into disappointment early on, to persist, while yet not at all telling us why in such a way as to telegraph the "solid left uppercut."

But I'm your opposite on one thing... I don't like hardbacks. Too heavy, aggravate my bad neck holding them up. I need paperback!

But I'll put it on my watch list.

(2) craig mclaughlin made the following comment | Sep 26, 2007 9:44:38 AM | Permalink

Always looking for a good book and this sounds like one, I'll check it out. The trials and tribulations of the book reviewer-- one the one hand free books, on the other you feel obligated to read them, which is a real chore sometimes. Case in point: Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld's potboiler, "The Interpretation of Murder." The fact that it was a free review copy didn't make it any easier to read, harder in fact. I didn't write a review of it because some books aren't good enough to deserve a bad review.

Another law professor turned novelist is Paul Goldstein, his book "Errors and Omissions" I read on my own time, not for review. It wasn't good either. But it wasn't bad, his Michael Seeley character is supposed to return, and maybe he'll turn into something. And oh, you won't find much in the way of intellectual property law in the book.

(What's up with these law professor's that think they can write fiction? Why don't they just start a blog, like all the rest?)

If you want to read good books written by a lawyer you need to check out the late great George V. Higgins, if you haven't already done so. Elmore Leonard said that reading "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" taught him how to write about crime. "Defending Billy Ryan" is a personal favorite.

(3) Carol Herman made the following comment | Sep 26, 2007 12:57:34 PM | Permalink

Wow. Only 75-cents at Amazon. Plus, postage.

And, I've never even seen a single Soprano's episode.

Nor, do I usually even read fiction.

Seems like this should be fun.

A good review goes a long way into whetting the appitites of others.

(4) Mark L made the following comment | Sep 26, 2007 6:52:19 PM | Permalink

I review books for a local newspaper. (Not the Houston Chronicle.) When I request a review copy I always state the following:

"I won't guarantee I will review your book. But I will guarantee this: My editor likes positive reviews. If I say anything about your book in this newspaper, it will be a recommendation, and a positive review."

No author or publisher wants to believe their book is a dog. I always get the copy.

(Under the heading of "kids don't try this at home": Dropping an author or publisher a e-mail asking for a review copy will not get you a book unless you include the following -- "I write book reviews for >name of publication<. You can see some of my reviews at >publication's url<. Do a search on "Your Name.")

If you are a book omnivore, getting a gig reviewing books is the Greatest. Thing. Ever.

(5) greg made the following comment | Sep 26, 2007 9:43:05 PM | Permalink

Many years back I got on a publisher's "free review copy" list (no idea why). Unfortunately, the first book they sent me was Clarke's 3001, which has got to be one of the worst books I've ever read. I sent them honest feedback on the book, pointing out the worst of the idiocies, and begging them not to release the book until they fixed it up.

Needless to say, I never got another review copy from them. :-)

(6) John Power made the following comment | Sep 27, 2007 12:49:58 AM | Permalink

sounds like a good book, I'll check it out.

(7) EW1(SG) made the following comment | Sep 27, 2007 8:12:26 AM | Permalink

Mark L:

If you are a book omnivore, getting a gig reviewing books is the Greatest. Thing. Ever.

Uh, can you get paid for this?

(8) craig mclaughlin made the following comment | Sep 27, 2007 9:16:23 AM | Permalink

"Uh, can you get paid for this?"

If I may answer for Mark L: Yes. But not very much. In my neck of the woods, $75 to $100 per review. That's for a freelancer nobody like me. I'll bet Jonathan Yardley does a little better.

(9) Mark L made the following comment | Sep 28, 2007 9:42:16 AM | Permalink

Craig has it pegged for standard review fees. Actually, I suspect that $50.00 is more normal. At the bottom rung, you get a free book. Oth the other hand, I write extended reviews for a national magazine (running 2000 words) that include an author interview. Those pay between $475 to $500 depending upon the word count.

That magazine only asks for two reviews a year, so it is not time to quit the day job.

EW1 if you want to try getting on as book reviewer, contact a small city newspaper near where you live and ask if they need books reviewers. Fuggetabout papers like the Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, etc. In Texas, your best bets would be something like the Bryan-College Station, Waco, or Tyler papers.

I'm sure you can think of local papers that fit that description in your state. Often they have a bin of review books waiting for someone to take them. After you have four or five published, that when you start sending requests to publishers.

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