Fox is Framed

Mar 23, 2015

Title:  Fox is Framed
Author:  Lachlan Smith
Publisher: Grove Atlantic, The Mysterious Press, 2015
Pages: 244
Price: $24.00 (Hardcover)

“Fox is Framed” is the third of Smith’s Leo Maxwell mysteries, and a kind of sequel. It is not necessary to have read “Bear Is Broken,” winner of the Shamus Award for first P.I. novel, or “Lion Plays Rough,” but it would be helpful. In the first, Teddy Maxwell, a powerhouse defense attorney, is shot in the head while having lunch, and his newly-hatched lawyer brother Leo must take over Teddy’s cases, including getting their father a new trial. Lawrence, their dad, had been convicted, perhaps wrongly, of killing their mother and was in San Quentin.

“Lion Plays Rough” is more of a stand-alone, involving Leo’s defense of an accused child molester. In both novels we learn how much police hate defense lawyers, who often reveal police errors and shortcuts. In addition, in “Plays Rough” considerable tension is added by the general hatred of child molesters and therefore their lawyers.

In “Fox Is Framed,” Lawrence is out on bail, having won a new trial, but during his 21 years in prison has become associated with a number of violent, very unsavory colleagues. As his sons prepare to defend him in the retrial Lawrence is suspected of yet another murder, committed after his release. The plot becomes truly complex, involving gangsters who run their criminal enterprises from inside, crooked city officials, incompetent police procedures, lost evidence, and the perpetual danger of prison snitches who may reveal conversations they have actually overheard or sometimes invent testimony in exchange for better treatment in jail. They have nothing to lose.

Much of “Fox” takes place in the courtroom, and seems to be an education in legal maneuvers— witness preparation, the framing of opening and closing arguments, feints, rebuttals, cross-examination, and so on.

I think lawyers will love it; average readers may want more simple action, not necessarily shoot-outs, explosions and car chases, but more detective work, investigative procedure. In his previous novels, Smith, a Birmingham attorney who studied writing at Stanford and law at Berkeley, displayed his love of both the west coast and noir fiction in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, employing San Francisco atmospherics with success: the dark streets of the Mission District, the Presidio, the fog in which dangers lurk, the crashing sea at Seal Rock. There is less here.

In large part, the action could be anywhere. In “Fox is Framed,” there is some action—danger, capture and escape, switched identities, hookers and pimps, missing corpses, but too great a percentage takes place at City Hall, which is always neutral territory and runs the risk of being therefore bland. It is true that the courtroom trial is the perfect structure for rising action, climax and denouement. We see the opposing lawyers jousting, mano a mano—achieving small victories, displaying the agility needed to cope with the much-despised unexpected testimony. A battle is waged; one side is victorious. One hopes justice triumphs.

But I still think “Fox is Framed” could have used fewer scenes of lawyers and their briefcases and a little more rough stuff—the femme fatale, the knock on the head.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.