You really need to read one of James Sheehan’s books if you haven’t already. Sheehan, a trial attorney for some three decades who now teaches trial law, toils in the genre of --- can you guess it? Say it with me --- courtroom thrillers. But he is more concerned with characters than with legalese. My guess is that Sheehan was warmly received by the bench when he appeared in court, given that he has that wonderful and all-too-rare ability to lay out the facts --- his story --- in an entertaining manner without sounding as if he is in love with his own voice. That ability was manifested in his critically and commercially acclaimed Jack Tobin novels and is demonstrated once again in his latest work.
THE ALLIGATOR MAN introduces a new character in the form of Kevin Wylie, a Miami defense attorney. Wylie is employed in a firm where he is a rising star, second only to Bernie Stang, the owner of the firm who keeps Wylie on a “first among equals” status behind himself. Wylie is considering striking out on his own, but is fired by Stang before being given the opportunity to quit. Worse, Stang makes it more than clear that he does not want Wylie practicing in Miami. At the same time, Wylie’s girlfriend is making noise about coming to a parting of the ways. In the midst of these twin crises, Wylie receives a telephone call advising him that his father has terminal cancer and is asking to see him. The man is only a distant memory in Wylie’s past, given that Wylie has not seen him since he was a child. Wylie reluctantly travels to St. Albans, where his father, a noted defense attorney in his own right, has some revelations for him that will challenge beliefs about himself and his family that he held as gospel.
"James Sheehan makes you care about his 'clients': Wylie, Fuller, and some other memorable folks you will meet along the way. The story never gets bogged down in legal minutiae and, interestingly enough, is as much about Wylie establishing his relationship with his long-estranged father as it is about the jury reaching its verdict."
Meanwhile, other events are overtaking Wylie that will have a direct bearing on his future. A man named Roy Johnson has gone missing in the Florida Everglades, leaving behind nothing but a wallet and some scraps of his clothing deep in the swamp. Johnson is a notorious figure, having founded a company named Dynatron and cashing out of it just ahead of its failure, leaving investors bereft of millions of dollars and hundreds of employees without their jobs or pensions. Johnson is guilty as sin but has never been charged with anything. Not exactly a popular man, no one is especially upset when he goes missing, apparently as the result of a close encounter with some alligators. The incident, coupled with Johnson’s personality, earns him the nickname “The Alligator Man.”
However, when the statement of an eyewitness establishes that Johnson’s disappearance is the result of foul play, the police do not lack for suspects; there are hundreds of them. The most likely one is a man named Billy Fuller, a former employee of Dynatron who lost his wife to cancer and his home as a direct result of Johnson’s actions. Wylie takes on Fuller’s defense, even though it at appears to be all but impossible to defend Fuller, who was in the area, made vague threats, and certainly had a motive to kill Johnson.
As he prepares for trial, Wylie finds that he is reconnecting with his father and avails himself of the famous attorney’s wife’s counsel in mounting the best defense possible in representing his client. In the course of his preparation for trial, Wylie uncovers several startling revelations, including one that leads him directly back to Stang. Every piece of evidence helps; all that Wylie needs to do is create “reasonable doubt” concerning Fuller’s guilt. Yet the case against Fuller seems airtight, even as Wylie attempts to establish that Johnson’s shady activities in the past made him a target for murder. When the trial is conducted and the jury reaches its verdict, that is not the end. Not by a long shot.
James Sheehan makes you care about his “clients”: Wylie, Fuller, and some other memorable folks you will meet along the way. The story never gets bogged down in legal minutiae and, interestingly enough, is as much about Wylie establishing his relationship with his long-estranged father as it is about the jury reaching its verdict. That is a plus, one of many that you will find sprinkled throughout THE ALLIGATOR MAN, which hopefully will be the beginning of a new series.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 11, 2013