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The Defense (1997): A Concept Alien to Cleveland

D. W. Buffa, The Defense (Henry Holt, 1997)

[originally posted 8Mar2002]

A file folder, with the title in typewriter script on a peeling sticker, dominates the book cover.

It’s that folder that sits on your desk. You try to ignore it. But it taunts you.
photo credit: us.macmillan.com

It’s hard to figure out which side of me is going to win the battle over how to review this book. One side of me wants to harp on the slowest beginning in history. The other side of me wants to harp on the fact that once I got past those opening chapters, I ended up reading most of the rest of it in one long marathon.

After reading the first two interminable chapters of this novel, I was sure that I was going to hate it. I’d give it the fifty-page test, toss it in the box of books headed for greener pastures than my ever-messy book room, and give it a two-sentence review along the lines of the infamous one People magazine did for Black Sabbath’s Live Evil album [http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20084581,00.html]. But then I got to page fifty, and kept going. And going, and going and going…

The narrator of the novel is Joseph Antonelli, a cocky defense lawyer who’s unused to losing cases. An old friend, Judge Leopold Rifkin, asks him to take on what looks like an unwinnable case, a lowlife accused of molesting his stepdaughter. About the only person who really believes he didn’t do it is the defendant’s wife, and she’s the essence of the unreliable witness. How to get out of this mess?

From there, the book goes in a number of interesting directions. Unlike most trial-type novels, The Defense doesn’t stick with just this one trial, but goes on into the further ramifications of it, years down the road, keeping the main players entwined with the family. Buffa also thumbs his nose at the detective/trial genre in the most wonderful of ways (but I can’t go into detail without revealing a major plot twist). Once you’re out into uncharted territory, Buffa has you at his mercy. He messes with all the conventions of trial novels in the past thirty years, and he does it very well.

Would have gotten a higher rating without those painful first chapters, but it’s still a fine read if you can get past them. ***

About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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