Review

Life Sentence

by David Ellis



The windy city (albeit unnamed) is the setting for David Ellis's
second courtroom/ political thriller. In this follow-up to his very
successful LINE OF VISION (2001), Ellis takes us through the
shadowy hallways of a gubernatorial election, mired in unexpected
and iconoclastic revelations about one of the candidates and his
closest political ally.

As he did in his first book, Ellis gives his narrator a mesmerizing
voice, one the reader is prepared to take at face value. We want to
trust him. We want to believe him and to believe in him. He appears
to be such a nice, honest and humble guy. Jon Soliday is Senator
Grant Tully's Chief Counsel and closest friend. But a few weeks
before the election, he is charged with murder. The events that led
up to and surround the crime explode around a number of people, who
were involved in a rape/murder that happened twenty years in the
past. That tragedy becomes the paradigm around which Ellis builds
his tale. We learn that some of the most powerful movers and
shakers in the state may have reached their lofty perches as a
result of a conspiracy to cover up that long forgotten crime ---
the one none of them ever talked about, the one that took place
early in the summer of 1979. What really happened that night? And
how can something that was "taken care of" so precipitously at the
time have anything to do with the diabolical killing just taken
place?

Soliday is someone who, despite his erudition, his education, his
experiences and his connections, is caught up in situations that
are beyond his control. And while the reader may empathize or even
identify with him, s/he is forced to question many of the
self-serving, even possibly naive decisions he makes. Ellis
presents his readers with several probing questions: does it matter
if choices are made in the name of truth and justice, but are
ultimately fixed in a void? Are "truth and justice" abstract
concepts to be ignored or twisted to fit a particular situation?
What can we say of a man who refuses to question the vagaries of
memory, guilt, loyalty and human nature? Big issues. Big
dilemmas.

LIFE SENTENCE is an imaginative book that debunks the notion that
thrillers are "only" escape genre fiction. Ellis gives us a large
novel that is propelled by both plot and character and it surpasses
all expectations. Readers will find themselves convinced of one
thing, only to learn twenty pages later that they have presumed too
much. This tactic, in less capable hands, could be disjointed and
clumsy. But here, the author uses this device to create a very
clever scenario that moves along in a pithy manner. And he proves
the validity of the cliché: "… the best laid plans
…" etc. He proposes the argument that human frailties and
blind ambition are the elements that propel people on a collision
course with disaster. And once the detritus of such calamity is
cleared, the landscape is forever changed.

With the skill of a veteran writer, Ellis segues from time frame to
time frame with perfect grace. He maintains control over the two
stories; infuses his characters with enough humility and chutzpah
to make them believable; and touches upon a wide variety of
philosophical arguments, ranging from the validity of the death
penalty, to notion of male bonding, to the pitfalls of an old boy
network, to the demands of lifelong friendships. How far should
someone feel compelled or pressured to go in order to prove her/his
loyalty to a friend or colleague, he asks.

Fans of political/courtroom thrillers will find LIFE SENTENCE a
tale rich in ironies and littered with enough red herrings to
challenge the deductive skills of the most Holmesian armchair
sleuth. This is a story that is limned like a mobious strip
twisting back on itself, with drama and deeply felt convictions
about paths taken that lead to destinies unknown until it is
sometimes too late.

David Ellis can feel completely at ease moving into his place on
the shelf alongside better-known writers. He is bound to give them
a run for their money. Enjoy.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 22, 2011

Life Sentence
by David Ellis

  • Publication Date: March 2, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425194809
  • ISBN-13: 9780425194805