On the screen there are two types of criminal defense attorney: the corrupt mob ”mouthpiece” and the brilliant idealist who represents only innocent clients. Given that about 90 percent of criminal defendants end up copping a plea or getting convicted, the audience is not supposed to wonder how the idealists pay their office rent.
All this is a roundabout way of praising the singular virtue of Philip Friedman’s riveting courtroom novel Reasonable Doubt. Like the defense counsel in any criminal trial worth portraying in fictional form, protagonist Michael Ryan has no firm idea whether his client murdered her husband or not. And neither does the reader. Speaking for the prosecution, Ryan’s old law school rival Franky Griglia says she did it: bludgeoned him to death at an art gallery reception with the business end of a piece of sculpture.
Trouble is, nobody saw socialite Jennifer Kneeland Ryan actually deliver the fatal blow. While damaging, the physical evidence falls short of certainty. And despite the advice of the two high-priced attorneys retained by H. Robertson Kneeland, her Park Avenue millionaire father, she refuses to take the manslaughter plea offered by the prosecution. She’s innocent, she claims. And she will have her day in court.
The alert reader already may have spotted the novel’s most improbable complication: Jennifer Kneeland Ryan happens to be her defense attorney’s daughter-in-law. The murder victim is Michael Ryan’s only son, Ned. Estranged from his son since his ex-wife’s funeral — she died in an auto accident after a terrible quarrel for which the young man never quit blaming his father — Ryan finds himself in an impossible bind. If he refuses Jennifer’s plea to defend her, will he ever see the grandchild she is carrying? It complicates matters that Ryan isn’t a defense lawyer by trade but a once-renowned federal prosecutor who turned to corporate litigation and lost his edge after losing his family.
One minute Ryan sympathizes with his daughter-in-law, next minute he suspects she’s just what the omnipresent New York tabloids make her out to be: a pampered rich bitch who threw a murderous tantrum. His cocounsel, Kassia Miller, an experienced criminal defense lawyer, feels the same ambivalence. But the deeper Ryan digs into his dead son’s life, the more it begins to look as if Ned had it coming — and not just from Jennifer. Absorbing legal skirmishes and sharply drawn minor characters — including enough self-absorbed art creeps to tempt any reader to philistinism — combine to make Reasonable Doubt as crisply written and ingeniously plotted a courtroom entertainment as readers are apt to encounter this side of the county courthouse. B+