Here's one of the pleasanter surprises of the newly arrived millennium: a courtroom drama by first-time novelist Sheldon Siegel that is written with the style, savvy, and narrative ingenuity of a seasoned professional. The novel is called Special Circumstances, and it's one of the numerous progeny of Scott Turow's landmark legal thriller, Presumed Innocent. While it isn't as impressive as its primary model, it does bear comparison to some of the more memorable products of the post-Turow boom in legal fiction, novels such as John Lescroart's The 13th Juror and J. F. Freedman's Against the Wind. That, in itself, is no small compliment.
Special Circumstances is an account of murder, corruption, and corporate malfeasance in the San Francisco law firm of Simpson and Gates. (Think about that name for a minute.) The narrator -- and hero -- is Michael Daley, a former priest turned criminal defense attorney who has spent the last five years working for Simpson and Gates and has just been fired for failing to meet the firm's stringent standards of productivity. Daley's wry, caustic observations form the bedrock of this immensely entertaining novel, which effectively illuminates the inner workings of a high-stakes, high-pressure corporate law firm with "a license to print money."
As Special Circumstances opens, the Simpson and Gates fiscal year is winding down, and ominous signs are beginning to appear. A number of scheduled promotions are suddenly canceled. Bonuses for all employees below the rank of partner are summarily withheld. Rumors of financial instability begin to proliferate. Against a backdrop of innuendo and corporate unrest, an unexpected tragedy occurs. Two of S & G's attorneys -- one an attractive young woman, the other a senior partner with a reputation for philandering -- are found shot to death, apparent victims of a classic murder/suicide.
Subsequent investigation indicates that both attorneys were, in fact, murdered. For a number of reasons, suspicion ultimately falls on S & G associate attorney Joel Friedman, who had argued violently with both victims just hours before their deaths and who -- according to various sources -- had been sexually involved with one of them, the beautiful -- and pregnant -- Diana Kennedy. When Prentice "Skipper" Gates, former head of S & G and newly elected district attorney of San Francisco, charges Friedman with the killings, Mike Daley comes to Friedman's defense, inaugurating his career in private practice with a controversial, high-profile murder case.
The bulk of Special Circumstances -- a phrase, by the way, that is legal shorthand for crimes punishable by death -- describes the convoluted progress of the ensuing trial, which evolves, inevitably, into a first class media event. Deliberately, with great authority and an instinctive sense of drama, Siegel shows us the step-by-step process by which a highly circumstantial murder case is slowly, incrementally developed. Forensic evidence; eyewitness testimony; personal, sexual, and financial histories; corporate politics; hidden agendas; windows of opportunity; a variety of motives both theoretical and real -- all of these elements, and many others, are presented, dissected, interpreted, and disputed in one of the most persuasive, rigorously created fictional trials of recent years, a trial whose outcome remains uncertain until the closing pages.
Special Circumstances is simultaneously a courtroom drama, a murder mystery, an examination of the legal profession at its best and worst, and a complex presentation of characters caught at critical moments in their personal and professional lives. At the heart of it all stands Michael Daley: a decent man, a gifted advocate, and a chronic underachiever who has drifted aimlessly through the central passages of his life. After unsuccessfully adopting a series of identities -- as priest, husband, public defender, corporate attorney -- he finds, in the Friedman trial, an occasion he can finally rise to. The movement of the trial toward its dramatic, hard-earned resolution parallels Daley's own progress toward a coherent, if provisional, accommodation with the circumstances of his own life.
Special Circumstances marks the debut of a notably gifted new writer. Siegel writes with passion, intelligence, and an easy good humor that move his complex narrative forward at breakneck speed. He is, on the evidence available so far, a natural storyteller and a welcome addition to the constantly expanding ranks of Lawyers Who Also Write. Readers who admire Turow and Grisham should take this novel to their hearts. Special Circumstances is the real thing, and comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in legal thrillers, novels of suspense, and involving, expertly constructed fiction of any sort.||||||||
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
San Francisco attorney Siegel's debut pits a likable lead against a giant law firm run by villains and fools; the result is a well-made courtroom page-turner, skillful and taut right up through the surprise ending. Siegel's hero and narrator is the competent, low-key Mike Daley, former priest and onetime public defender, now a 45-year-old partner at San Francisco's glossy Simpson and Gates. Daley hasn't brought enough business to the criminal department, and the senior partners have asked that he resign. Also leaving the firm is Prentice Marshall "Skipper" Gates III, son of the firm's founding partner: Skipper has just been elected district attorney. "My partners are thrilled," says Daley of Skipper's departure. "They have never complained about his arrogance, sloppy work and condescending attitude.... What they can live without is his $400,000 draw..." On New Year's Eve at Simpson and Gates, Daley is packing up his office, Skipper is enjoying a glitzy farewell party and other lawyers are working to close a lucrative property deal. But when the deal falls apart, two of those lawyers--a slimy master litigator and an ambitious young female partner--are found shot to death. At first it seems to be a murder-suicide brought on by greed, sex and depression. Then one of Daley's few friends at the firm, the son of a prominent rabbi, is charged with the murders. Daley and Skipper clash in a high-profile court case with echoes of several recent real-life media circuses. If the trial itself takes up too many pages, Siegel redeems himself elsewhere by focusing on the flawed, often-desperate Daley: Siegel humanizes his hero by depicting Daley's charged, still-sexual relationship with his ex-wife, a tough lawyer who retains custody of their six-year-old daughter. With a winning protagonist and a gripping plot, Siegel's debut is sure to make partner at its first-choice firm: the expanding empire of Turow, Grisham, Lescroart, Wilhelm, Margolin and Baldacci. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The thought of another legal thriller might make your stomach churn, but Siegel has written an admirable first novel. When Mike Daley gets fired from a prestigious San Francisco law firm, he starts a private practice. His first case is huge--to defend his best friend and former colleague, who's accused of killing two people at his old firm. Working to prove his friend's innocence, Daley uncovers the dirty secrets of his former partners and begins to question the legal system itself. The first quarter of the book introduces the well-defined and interesting characters; the rest is a compelling courtroom drama. Filled with sparkling court scenes that are a rarity in legal thrillers today, this book is recommended for all public libraries. Readers will be anxious for the next Mike Daley novel. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/99.]--Jeff Ayers, Seattle P.L. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From the Publisher
"A rousing legal thriller."
— Chicago Sun-Times
"A page-turner of the finger-burning kind."
— San Francisco Chronicle
"An A+ first novel."
— The Philadelphia Inquirer
"A poignant, feisty tale ... characters so finely drawn you can almost smell their fear and desperation. The dialogue is taut and tangy."
— USA Today
"By the time the whole circus ends up in the courtroom, the hurtling plot threatens to rip paper cuts into readers' hands."
— San Francisco Chronicle
Don't miss Sheldon Siegel's latest legal thriller featuring Mike Daley:
Available in hardcover July 31, 2001, wherever Bantam Books are sold
From the Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
“Founded in 1929 and headquartered in San Francisco, Simpson and Gates is the largest full-service law firm based west of the Mississippi. With over nine hundred attorneys in eighteen offices on four continents, Simpson and Gates is recognized as an international leader in the legal profession.”Copyright 2000 by Sheldon Siegel
— Simpson and Gates attorney recruiting brochure.
“For three hundred and fifty dollars an hour, I'd bite the heads off live chickens.”
— J. Robert Holmes Jr., chairman, Simpson and Gates corporate department.
Welcoming remarks to new attorneys.
For the last twenty years or so, being a partner in a big corporate law firm has been like having a license to print money. At my firm, Simpson and Gates, we've had a license to print a lot of money.
At six-fifteen in the evening of Tuesday, December 30, the printing press is running at full speed forty-eight floors above California Street in downtown San Francisco in what our executive committee modestly likes to call our world headquarters. Our 320 attorneys are housed in opulent offices on eight floors at the top of the Bank of America Building, a fifty-two-story bronze edifice that takes up almost an entire city block and is the tallest and ugliest testimonial to unimaginative architecture in the city skyline.
Our two-story rosewood-paneled reception area is about the size of a basketball court. A reception desk that is longer than a city bus sits at the south end of the forty-eighth floor, and I can see the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Sausalito through the glass-enclosed conference room on the north wall. The gray carpet, overstuffed leather chairs andantique coffee tables create the ambiance of a classic men's club, which is entirely appropriate since most of our attorneys and clients are white, male and Republican.
Even in the evening of the customarily quiet week between Christmas and New Year's, our reception area is buzzing with a higher level of activity than most businesses see in the middle of the day. Then again, most businesses aren't the largest and most profitable law firm on the West Coast.
Tomorrow is my last day with the firm and I am trying to shove my way through three hundred attorneys, clients, politicians and other hangers-on who have gathered for one of our insufferable cocktail parties. I hate this stuff. I guess it's appropriate I have to walk the gauntlet one last time.
In the spirit of the holiday season, everybody is dressed in festive dark gray business suits, starched monogrammed white shirts and red power ties. A string quartet plays classical music in front of the blinking lights of our tired-looking twenty-foot Christmas tree. The suits have gathered to drink chardonnay, eat hors d'oeuvres and pay tribute to my soon-to-be ex-partner, Prentice Marshall Gates III, the son of our late founding partner Prentice Marshall Gates II. Prentice III, one of many lawyers in our firm with roman numerals behind his name, is known as Skipper. He is also sailing out of the firm tomorrow. The circumstances of our respective departures are, shall I say, somewhat different.
After my five years as an underproductive partner in our white-collar criminal defense department, our executive committee asked me to leave. I was, in short, fired. Although the request was polite, I was told that if I didn't leave voluntarily, they would invoke Article Seven of our partnership agreement, which states, and I quote, that “a Partner of the Firm may be terminated by the Firm upon the affirmative vote of two-thirds (2/3) of the Partners of the Firm, at a duly called and held meeting of the Partners of the Firm.” In the last three years, fourteen of my partners have been Article Sevened. I have graciously agreed to resign. On Monday, I'll open the law offices of Michael J. Daley, criminal defense attorney, in a subleased office in a walk-up building in the not-so-trendy part of San Francisco's South of Market area. Welcome to the modern practice of law.
Skipper's story is a little different. After thirty years as an underproductive partner in our real estate department, he spent three million dollars of the money he inherited from his father to win a mean-spirited race for district attorney of San Francisco, even though he hasn't set foot in a courtroom in over twenty years. My partners are thrilled. They have never complained about his arrogance, sloppy work and condescending attitude. Hell, the same could be said about most of my partners. What they can't live with is his four-hundred-thousand-dollar draw. He has been living off his father's reputation for years. That's why all the power partners are here. They want to give him a big send-off. More importantly, they want to be sure he doesn't change his mind.
The temperature is about ninety degrees and it smells more like a locker room than a law firm. I nod to the mayor, shake hands with two of my former colleagues from the San Francisco Public Defender's Office and carefully avoid eye contact with Skipper, who is working the room. I overhear him say the DA's office is his first step toward becoming attorney general and, ultimately, governor.
In your dreams, Skipper.
I'm trying to get to our reception desk to pick up a settlement agreement. Ordinarily, such a document would be brought to me by one of our many in-house messengers. Tonight, I'm on my own because the kids who work in our mailroom aren't allowed to come to the front desk when the VIPs are around. I sample skewered shrimp provided by a tuxedoed waiter and elbow my way to the desk, where four evening-shift receptionists operate telephone consoles that have more buttons than a 747. I lean over the polished counter and politely ask Cindi Harris if she has an envelope for me.
“Let me look, Mr. Daley,” she replies. She's a twenty-two-year-old part-time art student from Modesto with long black hair, a prim nose and a radiant smile. She has confided to me that she would like to become an artist, a stock-car driver or the wife of a rich attorney. I have it on good authority that a couple of my partners have already taken her out for a test drive.
A few years ago, our executive committee hired a consultant to spruce up our image. It's hard to believe, but many people seem to perceive our firm as stuffy. For a hundred thousand dollars, our consultant expressed concern that our middle-aged receptionists did not look “perky” enough to convey the appropriate image of a law firm of our stature. In addition, he was mortified that we had two receptionists who were members of the male gender.
At a meeting that everyone adamantly denies ever took place, our executive committee concluded that our clients – the white, middle-aged men who run the banks, insurance companies, defense contractors and conglomerates that we represent – would be more comfortable if our receptionists were younger, female, attractive and, above all, perkier. As a result, our middle-aged female and male receptionists were reassigned to less-visible duties. We hired Cindi because she fit the profile recommended by our consultant. Although she's incapable of taking a phone message, she looks like a model for Victoria's Secret. S&G isn't known as a hotbed of progressive thinking.
Don't get me wrong. As a divorced forty-five-year-old, I have nothing against attractive young women. I do have a problem when a firm adopts a policy of reassigning older women and men to less-visible positions just because they aren't attractive enough. For one thing, it's illegal. For another thing, it's wrong. That's another reason I got fired. Getting a reputation as the “house liberal” at S&G isn't great for your career.
Cindi's search turns up empty. “I'm sorry, Mr. Daley,” she says, batting her eyes. She flashes an uncomfortable smile and looks like she's afraid I may yell at her. While such wariness is generally advisable at S&G, it shows she doesn't know me very well. Jimmy Carter was in the White House the last time I yelled at anybody. “Let me look again,” she says.
I spy a manila envelope with my name on it sitting in front of her. “I think that may be it.”
Big smile. “Oh, good,” she says.
Success. I take the envelope. “By the way, have you seen my secretary?”
Deer in the headlights. “What's her name again?”
“Ah, yes.” Long pause. “Dooooris.” Longer pause. “What does she look like?”
I opt for the path of least resistance. “It's okay, Cindi. I'll find her.”
I start to walk away. She grabs my arm. I turn and look into her perplexed eyes. “Mr. Daley,” she says, “are you really leaving? I mean, well, you're one of the nice guys. I mean, for a lawyer. I thought partners never leave.”
Cindi, I'm leaving because I have more in common with the kids who push the mail carts than I do with my partners. I was fired because my piddly book of business isn't big enough.
I summon my best sincere face, look her right in her puppy eyes and make believe I am pouring out my heart. “I've been here for five years. I'm getting too old for a big firm. I've decided to try it on my own. Besides, I want more time for Grace.” My ex-wife has custody of our six-year-old daughter, but we get along pretty well and Grace stays with me every other weekend.
Her eyes get larger. “Somebody said you might go back to the public defender's office.”
I frown. I worked as a San Francisco PD for seven years before I joined S&G.
The State Bar Journal once proclaimed I was the best PD in Northern California. Before I went to law school, I was a priest for three years. “Actually, I'm going to share office space with another attorney.” Without an ounce of conviction, I add, “It'll be fun.” I leave out the fact I'm subleasing from my ex-wife.
“Good luck, Mr. Daley.”
“Thanks, Cindi.” It's a little scary when you talk to people at work in the same tone of voice you use with your first-grade daughter. It's even scarier to think I'll probably miss Cindi more than I'll miss any of my partners. Then again, she didn't fire me.
I know one thing for certain. I'll sure miss the regular paychecks.
I begin to push my way toward the conference room in search of Doris when I'm confronted by the six-foot-six-inch frame of Skipper Gates, who flashes the plastic three-million-dollar smile that graces fading campaign posters that are still nailed to power poles across the city. He is inhaling a glass of wine.
“Michael,” he slurs, “so good to see you.”
I don't want to deal with this right now.
At fifty-eight, his tanned face is chiseled out of solid rock, with a Roman nose, high forehead and graceful mane of silver hair. His charcoal-gray double-breasted Brioni suit, Egyptian-cotton white shirt and striped tie add dignity to his rugged features. He looks like he is ready to assume his rightful place on Mount Rushmore next to George Washington.
As an attorney, he's careless, lazy and unimaginative. As a human being, he's greedy, condescending and an unapologetic philanderer. As a politician, however, he's the real deal. Even when he's half tanked and there's a piece of shrimp hanging from his chin, he exudes charisma, wealth and, above all, style. It must be some sort of birthright of those born into privilege. As one of four children of a San Francisco cop, privilege is something I know very little about.
He squeezes my hand and pulls me uncomfortably close. “I can't believe you're leaving,” he says. His baritone has the affected quality of a man who spent his youth in boarding schools and his adulthood in country clubs. As he shouts into my ear, his breath confirms he could launch his forty-foot sailboat with the chardonnay he's consumed tonight.
His speech is touching. It's also utter bullshit. Instinctively, I begin evasive maneuvers. I pound him a little too hard on his back and dislodge the shrimp from his chin. “Who knows?” I say. “Maybe we'll get to work on a case together.”
He tilts his head back and laughs too loudly. “You bet.”
I go for the quick tweak. “Skipper, you are going to try cases, right?” District attorneys in big cities are political, ceremonial and administrative lawyers. They don't go to court. The assistant DAs try cases. If the ADA wins, the DA takes credit. If the ADA loses, the DA deflects blame. The San Francisco DA has tried only a handful of cases since the fifties.
He turns up the voltage. Like many politicians, he can speak and grin simultaneously. He hides behind the protective cocoon of his favorite sound bite. “Skipper Gates's administration is going to be different,” he says. “The DA is supposed to be a law-enforcement officer, not a social worker. Skipper Gates is going to try cases. Skipper Gates is going to put the bad guys away.”
And Mike Daley thinks you sound like a pompous ass.
He sees the mayor and staggers away. I wish you smooth sailing, Skipper. The political waters in the city tend to be choppy, even for well-connected operators like you. Things may be different when your daddy's name isn't on the door.
A moment later, I find my secretary, Doris Fontaine, who is standing just outside our power conference room, or “PCR.” Doris is a dignified fifty-six-year-old with serious blue eyes, carefully coiffed gray hair and the quiet confidence of a consummate professional. If she had been born twenty years later, she would have gone to law school and become a partner here.
“Thanks for everything, Doris,” I say. “I'll miss you.”
“I'll never get another one like you, Mikey,” she replies.
I hate it when she calls me Mikey. She does it all the time. She absentmindedly fingers the reading glasses that hang from a small gold chain around her neck. She reminds me of Sister Eunice, my kindergarten teacher at St. Peter's. She looks at the chaos in the PCR through the heavy glass door and shakes her head.
From the Audio Cassette edition.