Television dramas love to describe their fictional plots as "ripped from today's headlines." Some episodes are so topical that producers often feel obligated to disclaim that any of the characters portrayed are based on actual events or represent real people. Because works of fiction are often published many months after the real-life events that spawned their plots, the passage of time may diminish memories. But anyone who lives in Illinois or has been exposed to the countless network appearances of our erstwhile Governor Rod Blagojevich knows all too well that David Ellis has struck a chord in his new thriller that evokes painful memories.
Ellis, legal counsel to the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, knows Illinois politics and Blagojevich. When the Governor was arrested by federal authorities, impeached by the House, and then tried and removed from office, Ellis was the impeachment prosecutor. His knowledge of the sad saga that infected the state during Blagojevich's tenure is substantial. BREACH OF TRUST is his seventh novel. Clearly its subject is one in whom he has deep and intimate knowledge.
Federal prosecutors brought down Blagojevich by traditional methods with an untraditional ending. Through informant witnesses and wiretaps, they learned that Blagojevich intended to sell a United States Senate seat for an appropriate fee. This information forced officials to arrest Blagojevich in the dead of night. In BREACH OF TRUST, the crooked Governor is brought down by a less conventional law enforcement method: a government mole. Jason Kolarich is an attorney on the road to legal and domestic success. As a young associate in a high-powered law firm, he is co-counsel in a major political corruption trial. The acquittal of his client is tempered by the personal tragedy he suffers at the end of the trial: the death of his wife and infant daughter.
Kolarich attempts to rebuild his life but crosses paths with the federal prosecutor who he defeated in court. He finds himself in an untenable position, where he must agree to become a government informant and provide evidence against corrupt government officials. The corruption stain spreads all the way to the Governor, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Blagojevich. Anyone familiar with Illinois politics will recognize not only the sordid players of the Blagojevich saga, but also their corrupt conduct ranging from "pay to play" to appointments in exchange for financial favors. Ellis portrays the scandalous details in an entertaining and easily readable style.
Of course, one cannot forget that this account is fiction and not fact. In fiction, plot often trumps believability. Kolarich is almost a super hero as he remains one step ahead of several attempts on his life. All right, maybe not a super hero but certainly a James Bond clone. With all respect to Ellis, in my four decades as an attorney I have never met a lawyer with anything that could even come close to the skill and guile of the fictional Mr. Kolarich.
Governor Carlton Snow, while portrayed as a corrupt man, is also an enigmatic figure in Ellis's hands. Enough unanswered questions surround the Governor throughout the book to suggest that there may be more than meets the eye to his behavior. Perhaps Blagojevich sickened Ellis to such a degree that he needed to portray a politician with a few redeeming qualities. Readers will need to answer that question for themselves.
BREACH OF TRUST is a wonderful escapist work of political fiction. It's a page turner with enough of a connection to the real world of politics for any political junkie to savor. It's a fun book with interesting observations and character portrayals from an author whose résumé establishes that he knows of what he writes.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 28, 2011