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Trial by Fire


Trial by Fire

D.W. Buffa would be a household name in a perfect world --- a world
where bookstores are open at midnight on the eve of his new
release, and the masses queue up to read the latest in a series of
novels concerning defense attorney Joseph Antonelli in the same
number and with the same fervor that they read the exploits of
bespectacled wizards' apprentices. The scenario I propose is
probably too far removed from reality to be in reasonable
anticipation of occurrence, but I have witnessed miracles before
and continue to hope.

Over the course of six previous novels, Buffa has utilized
Antonelli as a vehicle to explore the culture and mores of the
American landscape. While a good deal of each of Buffa's works
concerns the mechanisms of judicial trial, these novels transcend
the "courtroom thriller" genre to which they are often and
erroneously consigned.

So it is with TRIAL BY FIRE, Buffa's newest book. There are echoes
within of Dickens, Dumas and O. Henry, containing elements of the
work of each of these authors. Yet TRIAL BY FIRE is not a pastiche
or even a homage to these writers. The commonality that this novel
has with A TALE OF TWO CITIES (which, if it was published today,
might be considered a courtroom thriller) or THE COUNT OF MONTE
CRISTO is that it subtly explores the foibles of the human
condition, the ones that many contemporary authors no longer care
to deal with, much less mention, either implicitly or

And the man is an absolute joy to read. Buffa coins at least two
phrases in TRIAL BY FIRE, creates an unforgettable minor character
within the space of three short sentences, and gives over a brief
paragraph to a physical description of another secondary character
--- a description so complete in every way that it would render a
photograph of the individual superfluous. All of this is interwoven
into a narrative that presents such matters as a short history of
Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, a visit to a restaurant you will never
encounter otherwise, and an ongoing narrative discourse concerning
trial by media --- all the while presupposing the intelligence of
the reader.

But there is far more going on here than stylistic gymnastics.
Buffa interweaves his superior literary style with elements of
suspense and mystery into a combination that makes TRIAL BY FIRE
impossible to relinquish until its last word is read. As with many
of Buffa's other works, this one defies an easy summarization, not
because of the complexity of the plot, but rather because the
symmetry of the work is so important to the narrative that one
fears that revealing one thing will reveal all.

TRIAL BY FIRE begins with Antonelli back in San Francisco,
practicing law as an informal partner in a quietly prestigious
firm. While reluctantly participating on a panel for a news
television program, Antonelli makes the acquaintance of Julian
Sinclair, a criminal law professor from Berkeley. Antonelli is
immediately struck by the level of Sinclair's acumen and
intelligence --- so much so that he is in immediate agreement when
Albert Craven, the lone surviving founding partner in the firm,
suggests bringing Sinclair into their fold.

The hiring never takes place, however. Antonelli is horrified when
early on a Sunday morning he is summoned to Sinclair's home to find
a woman --- a married woman with whom Sinclair has been involved
--- brutally murdered. Sinclair protests his innocence, claiming
that the victim was killed by her husband, a wealthy and powerful
icon of the San Francisco business community. Antonelli believes
Sinclair to the depths of his soul and vigorously defends him
against the charges. The media, however, has Sinclair tried and
convicted before the charges are even read in open court.

When Sinclair is indeed tried and convicted, Antonelli, obsessed
with the injustice that has occurred, takes it upon himself to
bring the true killer to justice --- thus placing himself squarely
in the path of the murderer. But Antonelli is unstoppable. As he
continues on his quest, several unexpected developments occur,
occasioning a maelstrom of passion, revenge and, in the end, a
rough and most appropriate justice.

TRIAL BY FIRE is a meticulously plotted work with unforgettable
characters, both major and minor, and a resolution that is as
equally haunting on the third reading as it is on the first. This
is another major work by one of the best contemporary wordsmiths of
any genre. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Trial by Fire
by D.W. Buffa

  • Publication Date: April 21, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399152814
  • ISBN-13: 9780399152818