Saturday, August 18, 2001

City of Angels: Historical Fiction Legal Thriller

City of Angels, Tracie Peterson and James Scott Bell's first book of the Shannon Saga, introduces 23-year-old Kit (Kathleen) Shannon, a young woman who desires to practice law. Only problem is, it is 1903 Los Angeles (the "City of Angels"), where the courtrooms are a man's world.

Orphaned Kit arrives by train from the east with a law certificate from the Women's Legal Education Society of New York, believing that it is God's will for her to practice law. She also wanted to meet her great-aunt Freddy, possibly her only living relative, and so traveled to Los Angeles, which, she soon learns, is a far cry from the more civilized East Coast. Even before setting foot in the city, Kit is advised to go back East; women lawyers are not accepted here. Aunt Freddy, a woman of high-society, takes to the girl but, finding her woefully inept in social graces, attempts to transform Kit into a "respectable" young woman who needs to find a husband ASAP!

Kit is not so easily distracted, however, and after many discouraging setbacks, lands employment with none other than the famous Earl Rogers (an actual historical figure), criminal defense lawyer. Assigned to a case of great notoriety, she struggles with her convictions: should she defend a client she suspects is guilty? Kit finds solace and strength through God's word and the memories of her father, a minister who died when she was eleven and whose Bible is all she has left from him.

Many people despise Rogers, whose clients represent the baser elements of society, hardened criminals as opposed to those of high society. Kit desires to help those who lack money yet have a good legal case, in contrast to her boss, a man who only takes those with enough money, but will defend and represent his clients as innocent whether or not they actually are. Earl Rogers and Kit Shannon learn from each other along the way, as Kit learns from Rogers the important parts of a trial lawyer's work -- such as jury selection, opening statements, and cross-examination -- while he comes to appreciate her skill as well as her faith.

Much of the story reads like a contemporary thriller, building upon the various characters by slowly providing more and more background information as the plot intensifies. Like a mystery, too, the reader comes across clues, early on, that build up towards the great murder trial and its conclusion. Soon Kit finds herself alongside Rogers taking on the corruption of the city, in a battle against blackmailed judges and the conniving lawyer Sloate, while also taking on the man who controls and would destroy her Aunt. The trial scenes are riveting, as the courtroom drama unfolds and Kit proves her skills as a quick-thinking lawyer.

Through Kit's experiences, the young Los Angeles of 1903 (population of only 105,000) comes alive, a city not yet overcrowded or polluted like the East; a place where city meets nearby country and desert. Kit finds a friend in a young Mexican girl, one of Aunt Freddy's servants, and enjoys new food such as oranges and tamales. She even experiences her first ride in a horseless carriage, a very noisy and dirty experience. Yet she cannot imagine, as friend Ted Fox does, the coming days of flying machines.

Another interesting historical figure is actor John Barrymore (who later became a successful star of silent movies and early talkies, and is actress Drew Barrymore's grandfather), who has a minor part as one of Earl Rogers' friends. From the east, he is appearing in a play in Los Angeles (Barrymore in fact later lived in Los Angeles, where he died in 1942), and tells of other family members such as his brother Lionel Barrymore. He also has a romantic interest in Kit.

The first in a series of three books (the next two books are currently in progress), City of Angels includes an Authors' note about the history of the court system in America, including the contributions Earl Rogers made with visual presentation of evidence. As portrayed in the story, Rogers was indeed skilled with medical terminology and once presented a jar of human intestines in a courtroom. The authors also note the practical non-existence of women trial lawyers of the time.

Tracie Peterson and James Scott Bell have together written a great story, historical fiction plus legal thriller in the style of John Grisham. Tracie Peterson brings another story in a long line of historical fiction family stories, and James Scott Bell, a former trial lawyer, brings his legal writing experience from previous legal thrillers such as Final Witness.

No comments: