We learn much in the opening paragraph of BEAR IS BROKEN. Among other things, it shows and tells to equal great effect that the tale is set in San Francisco in 1999; that there is an uneven power dynamic between the narrator of the piece, who we come to learn is a newly minted attorney named Leo Maxwell, and his brother Teddy, who has something to do with the criminal justice system; and that Teddy is a creature of habit. Everything in Lachlan Smith’s dark and memorable debut springs forth from that paragraph, which does everything it should do, not the least of which is to sink hooks into the reader that are not released until the book’s end (we’ll talk more about that in a bit).
"[T]he ending is as chilling as any I’ve read in a while. As with the beginning of this fine novel, it does exactly what it is supposed to do: leave the reader stunned, and wanting more."
Teddy is arguably San Francisco’s most successful criminal defense attorney, a celebrity in certain circles and a pariah in others. Leo, who has passed the bar examination and been sworn in just a few days before the book begins, is in the shadow of his older, wiser, smarter and more successful brother. We meet them a few minutes before the dynamic between them is about to be forever changed. While at lunch during the course of a trial, Teddy is shot and grievously wounded by an unknown assailant. Derisively nicknamed “Monkey Boy” by his brother, Leo suddenly finds himself thrust into his brother’s shoes. Nevertheless, he wants to identify his Teddy's attacker. He does not lack for suspects; during the course of his career, Teddy had made any number of enemies, from a former client with gang connections to the San Francisco police department.
As Leo pours over Teddy’s case files for some clue as to who the attacker might be, he discovers things that bring him up short. For one, the rumors that had long floated through the San Francisco legal community about his brother suborning perjury may well have been true. Additionally, Teddy had been secretly working to free their father, imprisoned years before for murdering their mother, his protestations of innocence notwithstanding. Leo begins following several murky trails of evidence that lead him from transient hotels in San Francisco’s Tenderloin to the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood, uncovering secrets of the past and present.
Who attacked Teddy? A college student with whom Leo is slowly but inexorably becoming involved is near the top of the list, as is her powerful father, whose link to Leo’s past gradually becomes all too clear. Meanwhile, Teddy lies near death in a San Francisco hospital, his fate in doubt, even as Leo puts himself in danger as he draws ever closer to the attacker.
BEAR IS BROKEN is complete in itself, with a definite beginning, middle and ending. Smith, however, leaves a number of situations open for future resolution. While it is not a courtroom thriller per se --- there are only a couple of courtroom vignettes, and these focus more on the development of the character of Leo than on providing clues --- Leo’s legal career will figure at least nominally if not prominently in later volumes of the series, if the book’s last few pages are any indication. Speaking of which: the ending is as chilling as any I’ve read in a while. As with the beginning of this fine novel, it does exactly what it is supposed to do: leave the reader stunned and wanting more.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 22, 2013