The legal fiction genre generally follows a standard formula. A contemporary courtroom finds itself as the setting for a grisly and sensational murder trial. Readers can be fairly certain that the defendant charged with the crime is not the actual perpetrator of the offense. The novel will usually follow the path to the actual criminal through investigation and trial conducted by a heroic attorney fighting against substantial odds. Criminal investigations accompanied by courtroom scenes are the stuff of legal fiction.
WORTHY BROWN’S DAUGHTER by Phillip Margolin does not follow the traditional formula. While Margolin has written 17 legal thrillers since his first novel, GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN, was published in 1993, this is the story of an actual case he discovered while doing legal research as a practicing attorney that haunted him for decades. Holmes v. Ford, decided in 1853 while Oregon was still a territory, is the foundation for Margolin’s latest. The modern legal world with computers, electronic conferences and 140-character “tweets” is beautifully contrasted by Margolin as he takes readers back to a world where attorneys and judges (all male) rode the legal circuit on horseback, wrote out pleadings with pen and ink, and otherwise maneuvered through mysterious and arcane legal procedures vastly different than experienced today.
"For both writers and readers, it is always refreshing to deviate from an established and successful formula. Margolin captures both the practice of law and the sad history of racism that was America in the Civil War era in an entertaining and enjoyable novel for lovers of courtroom fiction."
The attorney hero here is Matthew Penny, who journeyed west to the Oregon territory and became a young widower when his wife drowned in a river crossing. Penny struggles to build his legal practice while continuing to mourn Rachel's death. His first meeting with Worthy Brown, a freed Negro slave, comes when Brown informs Penny that there is an effort to bribe a juror in a civil lawsuit where Penny is one of the attorneys. All Brown asks for this valuable information is that Penny represent him in a legal battle, a fight to obtain freedom for his daughter Roxanne, who was brought to Oregon from Georgia as a slave.
The legal battle to free Roxanne Worthy is but one of the subplots that comprise this interesting and readable novel. A scheming serial murderess, a romance between Penny and the wealthy daughter of a Portland businessman, and, of course, a homicide that serves as the linchpin of the book all add charm to the story. The killing, for which Worthy Brown is imprisoned and brought to trial, raises more issues than guilty or not guilty. Margolin has added interesting ethical and moral dilemmas to the plot, and lawyers may find the treatment thought provoking.
Phillip Margolin was an attorney in Portland, Oregon, before devoting himself to a full-time writing career. WORTHY BROWN’S DAUGHTER represents a 30-year effort to fictionalize the case that he first discovered in the 1980s. For both writers and readers, it is always refreshing to deviate from an established and successful formula. Margolin captures both the practice of law and the sad history of racism that was America in the Civil War era in an entertaining and enjoyable novel for lovers of courtroom fiction.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 24, 2014