Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Double-Edged Sword

Depending on how you look at corporate law, it's either very exciting or incredibly tedious and dry. On one hand, you've got the human side: larger-than-life gamblers, hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the late nights and fever pitch of activity that makes everything come out within the law. On the other hand, there's the maze of technicalities, the Section 8b7s, arcane multisyllabic words that can only be explained by using other arcane multisyllabic words, until a layperson wonders how anyone can comprehend this crap, let alone care about it.

A novel about corporate law would have to appeal to both audiences. Aim at corporate lawyers alone, and you're looking at having most of your books remaindered and your agent forgetting your phone number. At the same time, though, corporate lawyers, and ex-corporate lawyers, will most definitely be reading your work and you have to appeal to them too.

At first, I thought Sabin Willett's The Deal was going to fail at this. The book opens in the midst of a multi-million dollar real estate deal, the biggest one that the firm of Freer, Motley has ever seen in its lengthy history. It's a manic hive of activity. You can smell the scorched coffee, the toner fumes, the rotting Chinese takeout in office trash bins as all the major players work their behinds off to close the deal in just eight days. But just when it appears to be getting interesting, the pace slows to accomodate the legal technicalities.

I was ready to give up at this point, didn't find it as human or as interesting as Present Value. However, I was reading it outside towards the close of a beautiful day right before the wedding where I'd be wearing a dress that showed a fair amount of skin. And I didn't want to be mistaken for an undead outside of World of Warcraft. I didn't want to lose precious sun time by rummaging for a new book, so I kept going. I'm pretty glad I did.

The drama cranks up when something goes very, very wrong with the real estate deal. Somehow, the mortgage had been written for merely $840,000...leaving out entirely the third set of zeroes. The client paid off the balanace immediately (probably out of his change tray). Malpractice is threatened. Jobs are on the line. A very unfavorable settlement is reached, and one man alone stands against it. Later, that man is found dead in his home, at first an apparent suicide, then possibly murdered by one of his own employees, John Shepard, recently passed over for partner.

Or was he? Protagonist Ed Mulcahy, who got the partner slot over his friend and mentor Shepard, is tasked first with getting to the bottom of the mortgage error, then with defending his friend against the murder charge. Not by the firm -- who fires him -- but by Shepard himself.

At this point, it's more or less all legal drama. The drama's intensified by the fact that Mulcahy is most decidedly NOT a criminal defense attorney and is having to improvise. A rich tapestry of characters support and thwart Mulcahy's efforts: tough stubborn loner MIS man George Creel; loud, crude private investigator Stevie Carr; flashy, lazy susperstar defense attorney Parisi, etc. etc. If you've seen Law and Order, you've seen a lot of these characters before. It turns out that neither theory of the crime -- suicide or murder by John Shepard -- quite fits, and Mulcahy has to dig up his own evidence for what really happened by night, while trying the case by day.

I enjoyed the book overall, but there's nothing terribly ground-breaking or unusual here. The book was written in 1996, and computers play a major role in them, so readers slightly younger than myself might have some issues with these portions (I myself had to snigger a bit at the scenes where the modem was dialing up). It's lighter reading than the beginning of the book suggests. I finished the 434-page book in about a day and a half. But it's not bad.