You don’t have to read the first three volumes of David Ellis’s Jason Kolarich series to thoroughly enjoy this latest installment. Whether or not you are familiar with Kolarich, you will find THE LAST ALIBI to be a wild ride, a courtroom thriller that evokes the spirit of some classics of the genre yet very much provides its own original variations on a theme.
Before we begin, a word about the structure of the book. THE LAST ALIBI is told from different points of view, alternating between Kolarich and Shauna Tasker, his law partner and best friend, in the first person present while jumping back and forth between the book’s immediate present (December) and past (June and July of the same year). If you are concerned about this being confusing, never fear: Ellis sets up huge sign markers at each change in point of view and each time jump, so that the reader knows exactly where the characters are, even as a tantalizing and puzzling mystery unfolds and a trap is set and sprung, one from which Kolarich may not walk away intact.
"Let me assure you that you will want to read the book in one sitting, even if you happen to figure out fairly early on where all this is going and what happened. I did, but I was so swept up in the journey of this mystery/courtroom drama that I didn’t care.... Don’t pass up THE LAST ALIBI; you’ll fall in love with courtroom thrillers all over again."
The somewhat unusual structure of the book notwithstanding (there is a reason for it), there is a passel of surprises and swerves from the beginning --- which finds Kolarich, one of the most respected defense attorneys of his local bar, on trial for murder --- to the end, which is not quite what I expected, not by a long shot. The majority of the hand grenades that Ellis tosses into the mix at any given moment involve Kolarich, who is recovering from an ankle injury. Something is different about him, and it’s not just that he’s a bit slower on his feet. The general feeling one gets almost from the start of the narrative is that the boy isn’t right, an impression that turns out to be quite accurate. The people around him, particularly Tasker, notice that something is up. It’s not anything specific, at least initially; Kolarich isn’t off his game, legal or otherwise, but looks and acts as if he is quietly fraying around the edges. And as we learn in THE LAST ALIBI, “fraying” would be understating matters.
There couldn’t be a worse time for a prospective client like James Drinker to enter Kolarich’s professional life. When Drinker walks into his office, Kolarich almost immediately pegs him as what I would call a “DLR” --- “Doesn’t Look Right” --- which is not uncommon in the criminal defense practice. Drinker presents an unusual situation: he’s concerned that he’s being framed for a pair of murders occurring in the city. He hasn’t been charged or even investigated, but fears that it’s only a matter of time, since one of the victims is a former girlfriend and the other is an acquaintance. He does not have an alibi for the murders, given that he is a loner and was home by himself at the time of each murder. When another few victims are added to the list, Kolarich comes to believe that Drinker, aka Little Mr. Innocent, may not be so innocent after all and that his erstwhile client is setting him up for the murders.
All is not awful in Kolarich’s life. He has a new love interest, a court reporter who is absolutely crazy about him and perfectly happy to do what guys think about doing all day long. That doesn’t leave much time to practice law, which is one reason that Kolarich leaves Tasker in the lurch on the eve of an extremely important trial. Then everything seems to fall apart for Kolarich, as he is charged with murder. He pleads not guilty. But is he truly innocent? One thing that Kolarich assures us of near the very beginning is that he’s lying.
Let me assure you that you will want to read the book in one sitting, even if you happen to figure out fairly early on where all this is going and what happened. I did, but I was so swept up in the journey of this mystery/courtroom drama that I didn’t care. And just because you might guess what is going on doesn’t mean you’ll guess the ending, which is another thing entirely. Don’t pass up THE LAST ALIBI; you’ll fall in love with courtroom thrillers all over again.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 2, 2013