MIDNIGHT is a wonderful, high-end caper novel. It’s a one-sit read that takes place within the claustrophobic confines of several blocks in Lower Manhattan, in and around the New York County Courthouse. If I were pitching the book as a film, I would describe it as “A Simple Plan meets Weekend at Bernie’s” with a dark edge. For you, though, I’ll go into a bit more detail.
On a cold New Year’s Eve Day in New York, Judge Alvin Canter is in chambers to do some end-of-the-year housekeeping. The most important of these is the review and issue of a highly anticipated ruling on a motion in a contentious civil action involving the union representing court officers and other personnel. The ruling has been written by Canter’s clerk, an underemployed attorney named Tom Carroway, who is the judge’s right-hand man. Carroway and Carol Scilingo, the judge’s secretary, keep the office humming right along so well that the judge almost doesn’t need to be there. So when he sustains a sudden and fatal heart attack in chambers within an hour or two of arriving at the courthouse, no one outside of Carroway and Scilingo notices, at least at first.
"MIDNIGHT is a wonderful, high-end caper novel. It’s a one-sit read that takes place within the claustrophobic confines of several blocks in Lower Manhattan, in and around the New York County Courthouse.... Kevin Egan...has always eschewed quantity for quality. He has a cinematic style that lends itself nicely to the storyline, which you can easily view on your mental projector."
What drives MIDNIGHT is a rule peculiar to the New York County Courthouse to the effect that when a judge dies, his staff keeps their jobs until the end of the calendar year. Thus, if Canter had been considerate enough to depart the world on January 1, 2, or anytime in the new year, Carroway and Scilingo would have remained employed. Having died on the last day of the last year, Canter has inadvertently issued a termination notice for them as well. They need their jobs, as one might expect. Actually, they really need their jobs. Carroway has a dangerous guy --- a loan shark enforcer --- after him, the type who does not take “no” for an answer. Scilingo is a single mom with a special needs child and a mother who is in the early stages of dementia. In the heat of desperation, Carroway conceives a plan that is brilliant in its simplicity: hide the fact that the judge has died until after the stroke of midnight. Problem solved.
Interestingly enough, during the first third or so of MIDNIGHT, things go bopping right along for Carroway and Scilingo, so much so that it seems as if they are actually going to get away with their scheme. Scilingo has her reservations, in part because it’s wrong, but goes along with it because she needs the money and is also just a little bit sweet on Carroway. However, both of them are concealing secrets from each other and the world that they are reluctant to reveal but that nonetheless are knocking on the door. That loan shark enforcer wants his money right now. Carroway tries to jawbone the judge’s death into a quick fix for that problem, and for just a second, it looks like he might succeed. Scilingo has an ex-boyfriend causing complications because he is observant and maybe still cares for her. It’s a rough three days or so for Carroway and Scilingo, but they can make it through as long as they don’t run out of pavement. However, the brick wall they’re running toward is very close, much closer than they realize.
The characterization here reminds me of what Jason Starr has done so well in his long stretch of stand-alone thrillers. While there are definitely some bad people here, even the sympathetic ones (with the exception of Scilingo’s son) are not entirely benevolent or always motivated by sugar and spice and everything nice. As far as the narrative is concerned, Kevin Egan, the extremely capable author, has always eschewed quantity for quality. He has a cinematic style that lends itself nicely to the storyline, which you can easily view on your mental projector.
Overall, MIDNIGHT is a tale of desperation borne out of circumstance that implicitly asks, “What would YOU do?” You may not like the answer, but you will enjoy this book.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 2, 2013