Mike Daley is an ex-priest, an ex-public defender and now an ex-partner of Simpson and Gates, San Francisco's most powerful law firm. Now he is striking out on his own, renting office space from his ex-wife, Rosie. Mike is a little concerned about his ability to maintain his current lifestyle, including alimony and child support, with a fledgling practice.
His concerns about having no clients are unfounded when a partner and his former lover, also an attorney with the firm, are found shot to death on New Year's Eve in the law offices. What appears to be a homicide-suicide quickly becomes suspicious and one of Mike's former colleagues, Joel Friedman is arrested for the murder.
Joel promptly hires Mike to defend him, against the advice of his father, a Rabbi. Mike assembles a team of attorneys and investigators, including an aging war-horse, included at Rabbi Friedman's insistence and to Mike's annoyance. Mike tries the case the district attorney, another former Simpson and Gates partner, has built on flimsy, circumstantial evidence, hoping for a miracle or two.
While Special Circumstances is a detailed legal thriller, it is at many times so detailed the pace lags. The first two hundred pages move along very quickly, including jury selection and pretrial motions. Once the trial starts, though, readers are walked through the direct and cross-examinations, and sometimes redirect, of each witness, many of whom hold few surprises, and don't add to the plot development. There is very little tension created both in the trial and the investigation and the reader never gets a sense that Joel fully grasps the consequences of a guilty verdict, which may result in his execution. Joel spends most of his time concerned with his wife finding out that he may or may not have had an extramarital affair with the dead woman.
Mike is a likable character, he has humorous internal dialogues during his questioning of witnesses both in and out of the court. Several references are made comparing this trial to the OJ Simpson trial, a comparison readers may find a stretch. While Mike uncovers some things about the firm that they would probably rather not have public, none is particularly damming and nothing really creates another suspect. Readers will not be surprised to learn what really happened on New Year's Eve, although there are few clues as to the motive until the very end, and even that is taken one step too far.
Readers who favor complex court room dramas full of procedure will find much to enjoy in this novel. Those looking for high courtroom drama, however, may be disappointed.
--Jennifer Monahan Winberry