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An intriguing and stirring sophomore effort
on May 29, 2004
In their first foray into the realm of fiction, Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan created "Wake of the Perdido Star", a novel that I believed to be one of the best seafaring novels of recent memory. It made me very eager for future efforts from this tandem. While it has been several years, the wait was well worth it. Their sophomore effort, "Justice for None", is a dramatic departure from their first work, but is a very enjoyable read.
I was frankly quite surprised that Mr. Hackman and Mr. Lenihan would release a novel that is of an entirely different subject and historical era from their first one. It is something that, I believe, most authors have not pulled off well, and in doing so, have alienated much of their fan base. However, Mr. Hackman and Mr. Lenihan proved to be the exception to this pattern.
"Justice for None" is set in the small Illinois town of Vermilion on the eve of the Great Depression. The story involves Boyd Calvin, a struggling World War I veteran who gets caught up in the murder of his estranged wife, which leads to a pair of runs from justice before a climactic trial to prove his innocence.
The Boyd Calvin character is developed very well, and proves to be an interesting focal point for this story. The authors created someone who elicits in the reader an internal conflict. On the one hand, he is a sympathetic character as he struggles with his dark history in the war, the reconciliation with his wife, and his fight against a justice system in which the odds are wholly against him. On the other, he is almost repulsive, as he consistently resists authority and pushes away those who are trying their hardest to help him. This character development works very well, and is somewhat rare to find in these types of stories. It holds your interest and keeps you locked into the plot.
The plot itself is also intriguing, though it is perhaps more of a part of a broader view of this pre-Depression, Midwest society. It seems almost underdeveloped in some places, and was less of a driver in advancing the story. Rather, it supplemented the character elements and external events, such as the impending stock market crash, race relations, and small town life. While this would seemingly be a liability, Mr. Hackman and Mr. Lenihan made it work. The prose is descriptive yet sparse, which paints a very vivid picture, keeps the reader interested, and also serves to drive the plot at a rapid pace.
I also give credit to Mr. Hackman and Mr. Lenihan for the story development. Novels like this usually have a pretty standard ending that the reader knows at the outset. So, there is usually a "surprise" ending, which sometimes works but more often is picked up by the attentive reader well in advance. In "Justice for None", the authors somehow developed a storyline that was unexpected in terms of how the climactic moment would unfold. Then on top of that, they advanced the story to a wholly satisfying conclusion that had an element of surprise that was also not anticipated. What made the ending so good is that while it was a surprise, it was also rather subdued, which actually served to emphasize the impact even more.
So often in reviews - my own included - there is the tendency to rate something in comparison to the authors' previous work. I tried very diligently to avoid doing so here, because of the stark difference between "Justice for None" and "Wake of the Perdido Star". If I were to rate this based on a comparison, I probably would rate this as 4 stars. However, taken as a stand-alone novel - which is more fair and representative of the work - it does merit a rating of a full 5 stars.
Once again, the work of Mr. Hackman and Mr. Lenihan has apppealed to me as a reader, and I am once again looking forward to their next work. Hopefully, it will not be as long a wait, but I am eager to find out what they come up with next.