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Washington Lawyer

Books in the Law

From Washington Lawyer, September 2014

By Ronald Goldfarb

Midnight in Europe book coverMidnight in Europe
By Alan Furst
Random House, 2014

Review by Ronald Goldfarb

For a guaranteed good summer read, I turn regularly, expectantly, to Alan Furst whenever his books are published. This year, it is Midnight in Europe. It is Furst at what he does so well, portraying moody Europe at the start of World War II, peopled with intense and desperate characters, coping in dark and frightening times. You feel you are there, and are immediately drawn into Furst’s world.

In an early passage, Furst describes entering a New York City bar and grill, P. J. Delaney, when two of his characters meet: “[O]pen the door and the atmosphere came rolling out at you. . . .” One could say the same about opening a Furst novel. Problem is, with Midnight, the sweet is out of the gum; Furst has chewed over his basic story too many times, and the plots here (smuggling guns to Spain, two empty amours) don’t match the atmosphere and mood in capturing and engaging the reader.

As with all Furst stories, there are arch characters, love affairs destined to fail, anxious press figures, and middling government officials, all moving around European capitals and small countries in stressful times. With Furst, there is always noble patriotism (“If you believe in something, you have to fight for it”) and existential observations (“People who’ve been on the wrong end of a lawyer, the business end, don’t like them . . . On the other hand, it’s better than a duel at dawn, which is the way disputes used to be settled”).

The unjoyful characters dine, fornicate, survive. Lovers come and go.
“[W]hatever happened to your lady-on-horseback?”
“I’m not seeing her anymore.”
“The best choice, I think, though she was something to look at.”
“That she was.”
Life is arms-length, temporal, arch.
“France will be in the thick of it and I expect we’ll be bombed. Even so, I will stay in Paris.”
 “Another Pernod?”

Midnight in Europe is a weak story: it simply stops where it started. Readers won’t have connected to the characters nor been informed by the talk. “[S]pies are busy when there’s a war coming, so I have to be here, talking to people, sending cables, bah.”

Bah, indeed. That said, Furst will produce another book in a few years, and I won’t be able to resist.

The Director coverThe Director
By David Ignatius
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014

Readers will do better by turning to David Ignatius, whose new novel about the CIA in modern times follows the arc of his astute writing about the intelligence world in newspaper columns and past novels. Ignatius knows and regularly offers sound insights into the intelligence community he covers in his reporting and in his fiction.

His latest spy novel, The Director, demonstrates how the 21st-century intelligence world differs from the 20th-century spy stories genre. Today, we have eccentric young hackers in hoodies replacing the more conventional George Smileys of John le Carré or the Paul Christophers of Charles McCarry—quiet, old-fashioned, brave heroes—to cite the best examples of the old spy world.

What Furst missed in Midnight in Europe, Ignatius does, almost overdoes, in The Director. His plot is complex, dramatic, and but for an overly contrived and abrupt finale that seems rushed and is disappointing, takes readers for an exciting ride. His story shifts from Washington to New York to foreign cities. It is post-9/11 and a terrorized U.S. government is engaged in a vast and intricate technological maze that mixes patriots and extremists, geniuses and bureaucrats, conventional and unorthodox players.

A new CIA chief is recruited from the corporate world to clean up a bureaucratic mess, and he immediately becomes entangled in a scheme where he can’t tell the good guys (men and women in the agency) from the bad.

In the post-Snowden era, the new chief finds himself in an agency filled with strange characters and mysterious leakers, all with secret lives. “The worst calamity for an intelligence agency is a penetration agent or a code break,” Ignatius writes. His tale takes us to Hamburg, London, Berlin, Basel, and Cambridge, much as Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth did in their protagonists’ escapades. He introduces readers to Internet spying by and into government intelligence networks.

At times, the intrigues become confusing: “There are no more black hats and white hats. It’s all the same hat. They’re all working together.”

Ignatius’ examination of the history of international spying, particularly the US–UK post-World War II link, is interesting. He suggests that the idea that the CIA is “a sort of clandestine version of the immaculate birth” arising after the war is wrong. Characters and documents he cites indicate that our agency was created by the UK, “in geek-speak . . . they owned the firmware.” The CIA is a foreign implant, Ignatius’ hacker anti-hero argues, “a covert action,” and American pseudo-patriots are planning to expose that, if their conspiracy theory is correct.

The target is global finance. Someone, or some group, is hacking into the central bank of central banks, the Bank for International Settlements. An international financial crisis occurs, moving huge funds from rich countries to poor ones as a “moral” statement to the world from the new-age Robin Hoods. The new CIA chief has to stop it from happening, can’t do it alone, and needs to find allies. He learns the CIA is not like the business world he knew. “[T]he reasons people were drawn into CIA careers also made them unsuitable partners, by definition: They were good liars; they knew how to conceal their feelings; they knew how to do bad things and get up the next morning and do them again . . . the CIA had its own rules.”

But so did the rogue agent and his international crew of super patriots who had their own extreme visions of good and evil, their own methods, and who wanted to keep anyone else from owning space. The fugitive’s final plea from Caracas, familiar in the current world of leaks, is to offer no apologies:

I didn’t kill anyone. I didn’t torture anyone. I didn’t listen to people’s telephone calls or steal their secrets. They claim that I broke the laws of the United States, but I didn’t break any of the laws of humanity. I left the CIA as an act of conscience. I revealed its secrets to give liberty to others. I took from the rich and gave to the poor. I’m proud of what I did.

Sound familiar? Welcome to the 21st century.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, D.C., attorney, author, and literary agent whose reviews appear regularly in Washington Lawyer. Reach him at rlglawlit@gmail.com.

The Hanging Judge coverThe Hanging Judge
By Michael Ponsor
Open Road, 2013

Review by Patrick Anderson

Lawyers, I suspect, spend a lot of time trying to read the minds of judges. Here we have a novel, by a judge and about a judge, which may provide a few clues, at least into the mind of one distinguished jurist.

Michael Ponsor, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School, was appointed by President Clinton to serve on the United States District Court in western Massachusetts, and today, at age 67, continues with that court in a senior capacity. For five months in 2000 and 2001, Ponsor presided over the first death penalty trial in Massachusetts in more than 50 years. That unwelcome duty clearly inspired this novel.

His book’s title, The Hanging Judge, is ironic—if not despairing—because neither Ponsor nor his fictional alter ego, David Norcross, who’s also a federal judge serving in western Massachusetts presiding over a capital case, wants to see anyone hanged, injected, electrocuted, or otherwise put to death by the state.

In acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Ponsor cites with admiration the 1974 book Capital Punishment: The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake by the late Yale Law School professor Charles L. Black Jr. and says, “My novel may be viewed in part as an attempt at a fictional version of his excellent book.”

Thus, The Hanging Judge is a fictional account of a hard-fought capital case as seen by an honest, compassionate judge who directs the trial as even-handedly as he can, but who privately agonizes over its possible outcome. It’s a tale told more in sadness than anger.

Fortunately, although Ponsor has a message to deliver, he also has genuine novelistic skill. His prose is always readable and often vivid. His characters ring true and his plot unfolds efficiently. Certainly the novel won’t please readers who want to see “both sides” of the capital punishment issue addressed. But for some of us, that demand recalls the moment in that wonderful little stage comedy Greater Tuna when an irate mother in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas, complains that the local schools don’t teach “both sides of the slavery issue.”

At the start of the book, as a kind of curtain raiser, we see Norcross’ anger when he’s required by a “three strikes and you’re out” law to sentence a young man to life without the possibility of parole. When one of his law clerks complains about the lengthy sentence, the judge tells him, “Go tell Congress. Two priors plus fifty grams of crack equals life. No discretion. I’m not a judge. I’m an adding machine.”

We then proceed to the case of Clarence “Moon” Hudson, the young black man on trial for his life. As a teenager, Hudson had been a gang member and drug dealer, but after marrying a good woman and becoming a father, he’s taken a job and enrolled in college courses, although he continues to sell a little weed to college boys to help pay the bills. He’s charged with having shot a Hispanic drug dealer. Worse, he’s also accused of firing a shot that went astray and killed a white nurse on her way to volunteer in a health clinic.

But readers might wonder why is Hudson on trial for his life in a state that has no death penalty? As Ponsor tells it, it’s because the U.S. Department of Justice—indeed, the attorney general himself—in distant Washington, D.C., is playing politics. As the local U.S. attorney tells his reluctant prosecutor, “You know how they feel about Massachusetts having no death penalty. They think your boy Hudson is a good way to break the ice.”

Given that Hudson and one of his victims were both alleged drug dealers, the Justice Department has invoked the RICO law to make Hudson’s trial a federal case with a possible death penalty. And given that the accidental victim was a blameless white woman, the prosecutors think a jury is more likely to go along with the death penalty than it would for a murder involving two drug dealers, one black and one Hispanic.

The killer fled the scene, and for much of the novel we aren’t sure if he was Hudson or not. Hudson says he was somewhere else that morning and his wife backs him up. But a local police captain, the uncle of the murdered nurse, is pressuring witnesses to perjure themselves. One witness, a policeman, would advance his career by lying; the other, a neighbor of the defendant, would regain her grandchild from foster care if she challenges his alibi.

The defense attorney, a chain-smoking bear of a man, hates the death penalty, in part because after shooting many men as a soldier in Korea, he wants no more to do with killing. He first lucks into a defense lawyer’s “dream jury,” only to lose it because of a fluke and wind up with a seemingly hostile jury. For the defense, it seems that anything that can go wrong will.

Ponsor in various ways suggests the sometimes bizarre, often troubling view a judge has from the bench. Norcross is troubled when he sees that, during his opening statement to the jury, “several of the jurors had pulled the plug and were daydreaming.” As the trial continues, he is warned of a bomb threat and must decide whether to evacuate the courthouse or to ignore the threat as a probable prank call.

At one point, listening to wildly conflicting testimony, Norcross reflects: “In almost every trial he’d ever done, as a lawyer or as a judge, there came a moment in the testimony when the effort to recreate the past entered the Twilight Zone, when all the possible realities were implausible.” That raises a question: If the judge doesn’t know what to make of testimony, what on earth must the jurors be thinking?

Ponsor spices up his narrative with colorful dialogue. The prosecutor, a woman of Cuban ancestry, boasts, “I could win this case blindfolded, wearing nothing but Mickey Mouse ears and my Maidenform bra!” The defense lawyer, cautioning his client against taking the stand, warns, “I don’t know if the jury will think you’re God or Godzilla.” A senior judge says of some people’s limited intellects, “It’s like asking a chimpanzee to make gingerbread.” And the defense attorney, reflecting on the carnage he saw in Korea, recalls a great jurist who survived the Civil War: “As Justice Holmes said, no man shot below the rib cage dies a hero’s death.”

The trial creates mounting suspense. Most readers, knowing that some of the testimony against Hudson is perjured, won’t want him convicted. Yet the defense faces huge obstacles—perjury, politics, racism—and we read on anxiously to see if Ponsor is leading us toward a miraculous acquittal or a tragic execution. In the end, all plans and logic are trumped by powerful, unpredictable forces that seize control of events.

The novel includes two subplots that are well-intended but that Ponsor might have done without. One involves the widowed, middle-aged judge falling in love with an attractive woman who teaches literature at a local college. We’re happy to see Norcross’ love life become rejuvenated, but their affair is as often sappy as sweet.

Ponsor also relates the true story of two young Irishmen who were hanged in 1806 in Massachusetts for the murder of a young farmer that they did not commit; their real crime was being Catholic in a time of virulent anti-Catholic prejudice. Their sad history is told in brief segments as the novel progresses, and reminds us that the execution of innocents is an old, old story, but it also slows Ponsor’s account of what may become a modern miscarriage of justice.

But these are minor lapses—no doubt some readers will enjoy the romance and the history—and The Hanging Judge remains an impressive achievement for a first-time novelist in his sixties. It’s an honest book by an honorable man, and I suspect that most lawyers would both enjoy and learn from it.    

Patrick Anderson, a novelist and journalist, reviews fiction regularly for The Washington Post.