Conflict of Interest by Clair Poulson
And the Spider Latham Mystery series by Liz Adair
Spider Latham is published by Deseret Book, The Lodger 262 pages, $13.95, After Goliath 267 pages, $13.95
Reviewed by Jennie Hansen
Ten years ago LDS fiction was a budding genre with few authors and few sub genres to choose from. First came Young Adult, then Romance, followed closely by Time Travel, Historical Epics, Suspense, and a little Mystery and Humor. Today the choices are considerably broadened and more polished. Two new sub-categories in the Mystery-Suspense field were introduced this summer and leave readers craving more.
With Conflict of Interest Clair Poulson has made one of the first forays into the world of legal thrillers and Liz Adair has introduced a serial mystery series, Spider Latham. Already well-known for his highly entertaining romantic suspense/adventure novels, Poulson’s shift to legal thriller has found a receptive audience for the simple reason he has done it well. Few LDS authors understand the intricacies of the law better than Judge Poulson. We’ve had serial romances before but Adair’s the first to create a single detective character with serial murder cases. Though not well-known in the LDS fiction market, Adair makes a strong first showing.
LDS authors often find themselves compared to general market authors and if I were to compare Poulson to a popular general market author he would have to be John Grisham. Grisham is an excellent legal thriller author, but for my money I choose Poulson. Not only does Poulson write a gripping story based on points of law with his major characters drawn from various legal fields, but he demonstrates a commitment to justice rather than mere legality. His characters certainly have cleaner vocabularies and stronger personal morals than found in most general market thrillers and Poulson manages this without lapsing into naivet.
Adair’s Spider Latham was compared to Agatha Christie by Publisher’s Weekly, but I don’t see the similarity. I find Spider more akin to the likes of Tony Hillerman’s southwest heroes. Spider has lived all of his life in Panaca, Nevada and when the mines close he is out of a job. Panaca is one of those small towns in eastern Nevada settled by early Mormon pioneers back when that region was considered part of the Utah Territory. When the longtime deputy of Lincoln County is killed in an accident, Spider suddenly finds himself pinning on the badge. With no training other than a thick manual, a pistol that he keeps locked in the glove box of his car (which happens to be a secondhand mid-size with the word “Sheriff” spelled “Sherrif” on the door), and a dead body on his hands, he’s suddenly in business.
While the body, referred to as “the lodger” by his wife, is wrapped in a sheet and stored in the loft of his barn, he sets out to discover the who’s and why’s of the case. There’s plenty of small town neighborliness and humor along with a sincere effort to reconcile faith and reality. Spider isn’t a dashing youthful hero, but a middle age man with a bent toward peacefully serving God and his fellowmen. He doesn’t set out to be a hero and he doesn’t have all the answers. In fact, he clearly considers his wife, who is a strong, sensible, easy-to-love character to be smarter than he is.
The second book in the series, After Goliath, is another murder mystery set in the same town, featuring mostly the same characters, many of whom are related to each other because that’s the way small towns are, and of course Spider is drawn into a dispute between two brothers over money and land. Emotions run high when one of the brothers winds up dead from a gunshot wound, leaving a young wife and small children ill-prepared to care for themselves.
The homespun humor and idiosyncrasies of the small towns settled by Mormon pioneers in Southern Utah and Eastern Nevada give this series a unique and charming flavor. Spider uses a blend of patience, compassion, and faith mixed with good old common sense and practicality to solve his cases and deal with the everyday problems and violations of the law in his county.
Poulson’s story begins with a murder, too, and several strong suspects, but it is the husband who is arrested and charged with killing his wife. It differs markedly from Adair’s series with its big city setting and its focus on the legal aspects of the case more than the “who dunnit” angle. Rob Sterling is a law student and a former policeman, who has been cut off from his wealthy family and now faces a murder charge along with intense grief. Without the means to hire an attorney of his choice, Dan Smathers is appointed to represent him. A friend, Raul Garcia, volunteers to be his attorney, but without any experience handling this type of case, the judge assigns the friend to merely assist the prominent attorney appointed to the case. Smathers, however, has no use for an assistant, especially one such as Garcia whom he sees as far beneath himself.
Though the book doesn’t specifically deal with racial bigotry, there are some subtle and some not-so-subtle incidences where such bigotry plays a part and reveals Poulson’s awareness of the part race plays in the fabric of people’s lives and character.
The district attorney sees this case as the high profile case that will carry him to the state attorney general post. He selects the best prosecutor in his office, Haley Gorden, to handle the case. Haley is smart, tough, and a proven winner. She is also bi-racial. She has defeated Smathers before and there is an element of tension between the two. Even with her qualifications, the district attorney is taking no chances. He sets up a scheme to keep tabs on Haley and ensure that she wins–or can be replaced quickly by someone who won’t allow ethics to interfere with winning.
Conflict of Interest explores several moral concepts without becoming preachy in the course of a tale one reader referred to as an “all nighter.” Plan to read it straight through. Of course murder is the big issue, but there’s also the matter of borderline infidelity, friendship and loyalty, ethics and greed, justice, ambition, and truth. There’s a slight element of romance in the story, but it runs a distant second to the major theme of the book.
Readers may not identify as strongly with the main characters in this book as in Poulson’s previous books, however I like the way he made the victim real enough for the reader to view her as a person rather than just the “body.”
Spider Latham endears himself to the reader as a humble man, more intent on service than out-witting criminals. The story is more laid back and philosophical than the hard-hitting action one might expect from a murder mystery, but it too, holds the reader enthralled and is hard to put down, though they are more books to savor than to rush through. Though I enjoyed both books in the series, I felt the author shied away from the ugliness of murder and I don’t mean the graphic details. Those details are graphic enough to take on a macabre edge. The victims turn out to be people no one liked much anyway and the reader is left feeling more sympathy for the possible perpetrators than the victims.
These books are a welcome respite to summer chores. Pull out the lawn chair, prepare a tall, cold drink, and prepare for a few chills, some serious concepts to think about, and certainly some great entertainment.