As St. Louis attorney Rachel Gold knows firsthand, the grueling hours and demands of Big Law take their toll on young lawyers. Some turn to drugs, some quit the profession, and occasionally one quits altogether. According to the medical examiner, Sari Bashir quit altogether on that Thursday night. That’s when she fell to her death from the eighth floor of the downtown garage where she parked her car.
The police ruled her death a suicide. Stanley Plotkin, however, rules it a homicide. Stanley is the weird mailroom clerk at Sari’s law firm, but he is also a true genius. Among his obsessions is the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a massive compilation that correlates hundreds of facial muscle actions with specific emotions and mental states. For someone like Stanley, whose Asperger’s Syndrome renders him incapable of intuiting emotions from facial expressions, his mastery of FACS has caused him to conclude that Sari did not kill herself.
Rachel had been close with Sari, who worked for her during law school. She also knows Stanleyand his quirkiness and his geniusbecause their mothers are friends. Thus when Stanley announces his conclusion to Rachel as she drives him home from Sari’s memorial service, she can’t simply dismiss it. And when Sari’s father pleads with Rachel to review the police file on his daughter’s suicide, she reluctantly starts down a path that will lead into the heart of a dark criminal enterprise in which Sari was simply collateral damage.
About the Author
Michael A. Kahn is the award-winning author of several novels, praised by Publishers Weekly for their "intelligent, breezy dialogue and clever plotting." A graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Mr. Kahn began his literary career writing freelance feature articles for Chicago Magazine while teaching fifth grade in the Chicago public schools. The St. Louis attorney wrote his first novel on a dare from his wife, who got sick of hearing him announce, each time he finished a paperback thriller, "I could write a better book than this." "Then write one," she finally said, "or please shut up."
Read an Excerpt
A Rachel Gold Mystery
By Michael A. Kahn
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Michael A. Kahn
All rights reserved.
They held the memorial service in Graham Chapel on the campus of Washington University. Although Sari Bashir had died only eight days before, her funeral had already taken place in Detroit. Even with the autopsy, she'd been buried just five days after her death, which is actually a long time lapse for someone of the Moslem faith.
I glanced around the chapel. Warner & Olsen had closed the office for the service, and it appeared that most of that firm's lawyers and staff were in the chapel that morning, along with many others. I recognized a few professors from the Washington University Law School. I spotted Tommy Flynn, the Chouteau Tower's late-shift security guard, seated near the aisle in a row toward the rear of the chapel. I'd heard he'd been the one to discover her body.
Like many in the chapel crowd, I knew firsthand that the long hours and demanding tasks (and taskmasters) of Big Law take their toll on young associates. Some turn to booze or drugs, some develop medical problems, some lose their marriages. A few quit their jobs, a few (including me) quit Big Law, a few quit the profession, and every once in a while one quits altogether. According to the medical examiner, Sari Bashir had quit altogether on the third Thursday in October, somewhere between nine and eleven that night. That's when she fell to her death from the eighth floor of the downtown garage where she parked her car. The police concluded that she'd taken her own life—a conclusion that haunted me, and no doubt others, in the chapel that day.
Sari and I met during her third year of law school, when she'd worked for me part-time as a law clerk. She was a lovely person—quiet, sweet, diligent. The first member of her family to go to college, Sari had grown up in Detroit. Her mother had died of cancer when Sari was in elementary school. Her father worked on the assembly line at the Ford Motor plant in Dearborn. I'd met him at her law school graduation. I still have the photo I took of them that day. They stand side by side, Sari in her cap and gown, a diploma in her hand, her father Ameer in a suit and tie. If you look closely, you can see tears of pride on his cheeks.
It was a beautiful memorial service. Sari's cousin Malikah was the first of the four speakers. She described growing up with Sari in Detroit—from Barbie doll parties at grade school sleepovers to band camp at Interlochen in high school.
The next two speakers were the founding partners of Sari's law firm: Donald Warner and Len Olsen. Except for their ages—both were in their early sixties—they were a study in contrasts. Many believed those contrasts were the key to the law firm's success as one of the dominant firms in the Midwest. Donald Warner was tall and gaunt, with the build and gait of a retired basketball center, a position he'd played forty years ago at the University of Illinois. Len Olsen, though nearly six feet tall, seemed short by comparison. He looked more like a former quarterback, which he'd been at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau. Warner's expertise was in the esoteric realm of international corporate finance, while Olsen had made his name in courtrooms throughout Missouri and the surrounding states.
Both men had apparently worked with Sari during her six years at the firm, and each shared a touching vignette that highlighted her dedication to the profession—and each did so in a manner that highlighted the contrast in personal styles. Donald Warner stood at the podium and delivered his eulogy from prepared remarks in the deliberate, measured tones of a local TV news anchorman.
Then came Len Olsen. He removed the microphone from the stand, walked around the stage as he spoke, and eventually came down the stairs and strolled up the main aisle, making eye contact with many of us in the audience. As I recalled, he'd grown up near the Arkansas border in rural Missouri. He spoke with a gentle, musical southern drawl that had been charming juries and judges for decades. We in the audience, like Olsen himself, chuckled occasionally and, toward the end, wiped away a tear.
The last to speak was the dean of the law school, who read aloud remembrances of Sari by several of her professors. He spoke of his own memories of the shy but determined young law student who'd become articles editor for the Law Review by her third year. He concluded his remarks with the announcement that Warner & Olsen had established a fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship fund in Sari's memory.
The service ended with the organist playing what the program identified as Sari's favorite song, John Lennon's "Imagine." You could almost hear the sigh of relief throughout the crowd as the first plaintive notes rang out. The music meant that the service was over, and that meant that the most painful aspect of Sari's death—namely, the facts surrounding her death—would not be touched upon.
You may say I'm a dreamer, I sang to myself, thinking of Sari, but I'm not the only one
As I joined the crowd moving down the rows toward the center aisle for the slow stroll to the rear of the chapel, the somber mood was shattered by a strident nasal voice toward the back.
"Shall we focus our attention on the vote count for the Presidential election of 1836?"
I couldn't help but smile.
Stanley Plotkin. Barely five feet tall, bad haircut, horn-rim glasses resting on a big nose. Even those of us who knew Stanley Plotkin were taken aback by his outfit that morning. He had on an ill- fitting black tuxedo, including cummerbund and black bow tie.
Seemingly oblivious to the crowd, he squinted up at the enormous man standing next to him. "Do you recall the victor, Jerry?"
"In 1836?" the big man replied in a near whisper, clearly trying to encourage Stanley to lower his voice. "Andrew Jackson?"
"Jackson?" Stanley Plotkin snorted. "Hardly. Martin Van Buren."
The huge man next to Stanley was Jerry Klunger. He stood at least six-and-a-half feet tall and must have weighed close to three hundred pounds.
"How many votes?" Stanley demanded in a nasal staccato.
"I don't know," Jerry said. "Maybe we should leave now."
"Exactly one hundred and seventy."
One of the women moving up the aisle in front of me shook her head at Stanley and mumbled something. I saw a lawyer from the firm give Jerry a sympathetic smile.
"Second place?" Stanley demanded.
"Maybe we should leave now."
"William Harrison. Seventy-three. And then?"
The big guy shrugged. "Beats me."
I nodded at Stanley as I paused at his aisle.
"Ms. Gold," he stated in greeting, averting his eyes a moment, and then turning back to Jerry. "Hugh White, Daniel Webster, and Willie Magnum, tallying in at twenty-six, fourteen, and eleven, respectively. All Whigs."
Jerry frowned. "They were bald?"
Stanley snorted. "Whigs. W-H-I-G-S, Jerry. An American political party that operated from 1834 to 1856."
Jerry placed his enormous hand on Stanley's shoulder. "Miss Gold is here, Stanley. Time for us to leave."CHAPTER 2
Stanley Plotkin and Jerry Klunger followed me to my car. They worked in the mailroom at Warner & Olsen. I had known Stanley—or, more precisely, I had occasionally been in the same room as Stanley—for about a decade. His mother, Bea, was a good friend of my mother. The two women, both widows, had been playing mahjong together on Tuesday nights at the Jewish Community Center for nearly a decade.
Stanley was a difficult person to know. Although he was probably smarter than most attorneys at Warner & Olsen—and certainly smarter than me—his progress through school and life had been disrupted by a version of Asperger's syndrome that fell somewhere along the autism spectrum. According to what Bea told my mother, Jerry Klunger acted as Stanley's protector at work, which is one of the reasons Stanley had lasted so long at the job. He was now in his third year at Warner & Olsen. They were the law firm's odd couple—one a brilliant eccentric, the other a slow-witted giant with a heart of gold. Both were twenty-nine, and both still lived at home with their mothers. Tony Manghini, their sarcastic mailroom boss, referred to them as Master Blaster.
My mother had asked last night if I could take Stanley and Jerry with me to Sari's. They worked the late shift—noon to nine—and normally rode the bus together to and from work. Jerry lived just two stops further down the same bus route. But to get to the memorial service that morning would have meant at least one transfer and nearly an hour-long ride to go just eight miles from their homes. So I picked them up at Stanley's house.
When we arrived at the chapel, they had taken seats in the empty back row, Jerry on the aisle, his massive body effectively blocking anyone else from taking a seat in that row. That's because two was an even number, and Jerry knew that Stanley had a thing about sitting in a row with lots of other people because that increased the chances of an odd number. His mother had told me that Stanley had an obsessive aversion to odd numbers, especially in a row of seats. That was why he couldn't go to the symphony even though he had a huge collection of classical music at home—hundreds and hundreds of vinyl records arranged not by composer but by some combination of musical eras, styles, and keys unfathomable to all but Stanley.
They got into my car, Jerry in the passenger seat, Stanley in back. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I glanced back at Stanley.
"We're going by your house," I said.
Stanley checked his wristwatch. "Now?"
"You need to change out of that tuxedo."
Stanley stared out of the passenger window.
My cell phone rang. I could tell who it was from the caller ID. "Yes?"
I listened for a moment.
"That's not acceptable, Barry," I said. "Your client needs to comply with the judge's order."
He tried to start in again.
"Forget it," I said. "I'll see you in court at two." I pressed End and set the cell phone down.
We drove in silence, Jerry occasionally glancing back at Stanley, who was staring out the side window and moving his neck around in those odd contortions of his. My mother had sensed from her conversation with Stanley's mother that Stanley had had feelings for Sari Bashir. He'd been upset when he learned of her death, although it was beyond me how she could detect that emotion, or any emotion, in Stanley.
We were stopped at a light when Stanley announced, "She was not depressed."
I glanced at him in the rearview mirror. "What do you mean?"
Stanley was staring out the window. He started whistling.
"Stanley?" Jerry said.
Stanley turned toward Jerry and raised his eyebrows.
Jerry said, "What do you mean she wasn't depressed?"
"She was troubled," he said. "More precisely, agitated. But not depressed. Not sad, not melancholic, not despondent."
"When?" I asked.
"The last four days of her life."
"What makes you think that?" I asked.
Stanley rolled his eyes. "It was obvious."
The light changed to green.
"Agitated?" I asked. "About what?"
"Presumably about whatever resulted in her death."
Jerry turned toward Stanley. "She must have been very agitated."
Stanley stared at him.
Jerry shrugged. "You have to be pretty agitated to commit suicide."
Stanley snorted. "Oh, puh-leazse. Do you fail to comprehend, Jerry?"
"Sari Bashir did not commit suicide."
I slowed the car and glanced in the rearview mirror. Stanley was squinting and tugging at his black bowtie.
"Then how did she die?" I said.
"Did she slip?" Jerry said.
Stanley gave one of his snorts, which sounded like a dog's bark. "Slipped over a wall two feet high? Not under our current gravitational system."
"What are you saying, Stanley?" I asked.
"Sari Bashir's death was a homicide."
I pulled the car over to the curb and turned to face him. "You think someone killed her?"
Stanley was staring out the window now. He started whistling his tuneless song.
"Murdered?" Jerry said. "Do you have any proof?"
He stopped whistling. "Of course."
"What kind of proof?" I asked.
"The best kind."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"All in good time. All in good time."
And he started whistling again.
I knew enough not to push Stanley. Jerry made a couple of attempts, but Stanley refused to say anything further.
Excerpted from Face Value by Michael A. Kahn. Copyright © 2014 Michael A. Kahn. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rachel Gold, attorney at law, knows being a lawyer can be tough. When her friend Sari Bashir left work and instead of getting into her car leapt to her death from the eight floor of the parking deck, Rachel was devastated. They met in law school; Sari worked for Rachel as a law clerk, and had landed a job with a prestigious firm in St. Louis. Everyone at her memorial service rained accolades upon Sari. No one could believe they missed the cues she felt despondent, leading her down the path to take her own life. Perhaps she hid her sadness or became overcome with living the high stress life of a lawyer. On the way home from the service, Rachel was joined by Stanley Plotkin and Jerry Klunger, two of the mailroom workers for the law firm. Stanley and Rachel’s mother are friends. He is a brilliant man who wears the stigma of living with Asperger’s syndrome. Jerry helps smooth Stanley’s rough edges and makes sure he doesn’t have problems at work. This unlikely friendship has helped Stanley function in a society that often misunderstands him. During the ride home from the memorial service, Stanley states that Sari did not kill herself, but was, in fact, murdered. Rachel doesn’t really know what to make of his revelation. He is not one to make things up, he lives by the truth no matter how his words affect those around him. After he starts laying out the evidence, Rachel realizes he could be right. So begins her journey to find out who and why someone killed her friend. Most likely the killer is a member of the law firm. Rachel figures out a way to allow Stanley to observe each of them talking about Sari so he can use the facial expression recognition skills he has been taught to see who is lying or uncomfortable. This gives Rachel a high profile list of suspects. Rachel soon uncovers a web of deceit that is bigger than she could have imagined. If she keeps pushing the killer, it might backfire, making her the second woman to die for uncovering the secret. These characters are a hoot. All of them have great quirks, just like your co-workers or family members. The layers and depth makes them relatable, therefore likeable. Add them to the solid mystery, and you have a great read. Face Value has the perfect mix of humor, plot twists and smart, snappy dialog to make this a page turner with a satisfying end. I can’t believe I have never read any of Kahn’s Rachel Gold’s mysteries. This is the ninth in the series, but worked well as a stand-alone novel. I plan to catch up on the series so I can get to know these crazy lovable characters better while enjoying Kahn’s writing along the way. Copyright © 2015 Laura Hartman DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION: I have a material connection because I received a review copy that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was not expected to return this item after my review.
When this mystery starts out, it starts with a bang. At the beginning of this author’s ninth legal mystery, featuring Attorney Rachel Gold, a security guard comes upon the body of a woman in an alley adjacent to a parking garage. The unfortunate victim, Sari Bashir, is a young lawyer at a St. Louis law firm, Warner & Olson. The death is quickly deemed a suicide. The reason? Because the job of a young lawyer in a large firm is full of late hours and very hard work that can drive a new lawyer into many forms of depression and sometimes, well, sometimes they just quit. This poor girl’s death is put into the suicide file and put aside. Apparently the police on the case did not figure on Stanley Plotkin, who is an employee in the mail room of Warner & Olsen and also a man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Stanley is adamant that this is a murder case so he and his friend Jerry Klunger meet up with Attorney Rachel Gold at the memorial services for Sari Bashir and prevail on her to investigate the young attorney’s death. Stanley is a bit of a savant and people don’t pay a lot of attention to his ideas, but he knows what he’s talking about. He is into a system called the Facial Action Coding System that authorities have used to recognize emotions from facial expressions. Stanley is positive that Sari was very upset before her death, but definitely not suicidal or depressed about anything. Rachel agrees to investigate the death and gets a team together to help her. As Rachel and company look into Stanley’s ideas, she gives Stanley a free hand in helping with the case, as he is able to read the various emotional expressions on the faces of the people involved. Stanley has used his special skills, as an observer, to convince Rachel that this was definitely a murder and not suicide. Rachel and Stanley, along with Jerry, decide to record a memorial tape of Sari’s colleagues telling little stories and remembrances of Sari. Rachel gives the tapes to Stanley so he can study the expressions on the suspects’ faces. This part of the book was a bit draggy and I suspect a judge would never allow this in a real courtroom. However, in the story, the three friends along with Detective Tomaso of the St. Louis Police Department, are able to get somewhere with the video tape and prove that Sari’s death was not an accident. Now to prove it... Face Value was an enjoyable mystery with plenty of twists and turns. The characterizations are well written and, good news for the future, the author is on his way to a tenth book in the series. Quill says: Face Value is a good read with many interesting characters and a writer who knows the law and how law firms are run.