BAGMEN, William Lashner’s latest novel, features the always-welcome front-and-center presence of iconic Philadelphia attorney Victor Carl. Where there are attorneys, one usually expects there to be courtrooms; indeed, there is a courtroom vignette near the beginning of the book. Notwithstanding that very entertaining scene, however, this is not a courtroom thriller. While Carl is usually the smartest person in the room (a quality that he almost undoubtedly shares with his creator), his intelligence does not result in financial or career success. Carl’s tragic flaw is that, while he is not always honest, either inside or outside of the courtroom, he is true to himself, a quality that makes BAGMEN all the more interesting and ironic.
"BAGMEN is a complex work, a multi-layered morality play for our place and time. While Lashner asks many questions about our present system of elections and government that need good answers and may have none, you will want to read the book for the power of the prose."
Carl eschews courtroom work to become a conduit between a politician and the political wheels that need to be continuously greased. The politician in question is a United States Congressman named Peter DeMathis, who is running for re-election. DeMathis has all kinds of problems that need to be sorted out, none of which seemingly are immune to the salve of the green poultice, which Carl is dispatched to dispense with somewhat uncomfortable regularity. When the receiver of one such package is brutally murdered shortly after being seen in Carl’s company, Carl finds himself front and center as the prime suspect in a murder investigation.
Two things make matters much worse. One is that somebody appears to be trying to complete the frame on Carl. The other is that Carl takes up with Ossana, DeMathis’s sister, a mistake that you see coming from pages and miles away. Interestingly enough, both the reader and Carl are next to helpless to do anything about it, given that Ossana is nigh-on irresistible to almost everyone...and, as is ultimately revealed, “everyone” is not an exaggeration. In an act of self-preservation, Carl attempts to discover who is behind the murder and why.
During the course of his impromptu investigation, Carl meets an interesting group of individuals in an occupation similar to his own (and no, it’s not a bar association, far from it) who may or may not be entirely on his side. When a second murder occurs, however, Carl is at genuine risk of losing much more than his freedom: his very soul is in play as well.
BAGMEN is a complex work, a multi-layered morality play for our place and time. While Lashner asks many questions about our present system of elections and government that need good answers and may have none, you will want to read the book for the power of the prose. From the beginning of his career, Lashner has been incapable of writing badly, but he exceeds his already lofty standards with this dark tale, relieved occasionally by grim humor, which takes its protagonist and the reader deeper into the heart of political realities that otherwise might be comfortable. That BAGMEN remains strongly readable, in spite of its unsettling truths, is yet another indication of Lashner’s considerable talents.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 11, 2014