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Money to Burn by James Zagel (Putnam, 371 pages, $24.95) Suppose I told you that I am going to write a novel about a former police chief who became a prosecutor and then became a federal judge, a position he still holds. The judge, who has spent his life upholding the law, decides to become a novelist himself. What does he decide to write about? He decides to write about a federal judge who decides to rob a Federal Reserve Bank of tens of millions of dollars, recruits three accomplices, then pulls off the unlikely sounding crime. If you had any sense, you would try to dissuade me from writing a novel with such a cockamamie plot. Who would publish such a novel?, you would ask. Who would read something so utterly unrealistic? If I had any sense, I would listen to your advice, abandoning the plot idea for something that might be remotely believable. Well, I am not writing such a novel. But, to prove that truth is stranger than unwritten fiction, I just finished reading such a novel by just such an author. The novelist, James Zagel, is a former police chief, a former prosecutor, and a current federal district judge in Chicago. He was nominated to the bench in 1987 by then-President Ronald Reagan. Zagel says he received the germ of the story line from a Chicago lawyer named Mike King, who once said to Zagel, “Damn, what if a federal judge committed a really big crime, maybe robbing the Federal Reserve Bank — that would be a hell of a story.” Zagel and King toured the Federal Reserve Bank near the courthouse where the judge hears cases. After the tour, Zagel decided he could make the plot work. He says now that he omitted certain details about the bank that would cause the theft to fail. But, Zagel says tantalizingly, a scenario something like the one in his novel could work. In the novel, the judge, Paul E. Devine, is driven to crime partly by the boredom brought on by the death of his beloved lawyer-wife, Ellen, and partly by the desire for revenge against the head of the Federal Reserve Bank, a man who made professional trouble for Ellen many years earlier. The judge recruits two bank employees, a married couple. She is a security guard; he, an electrician. The final member of the larcenous band is Devine’s boyhood friend, a fire department paramedic who knows a great deal about setting blazes. The novel consists mostly of the plot to steal the money, the theft itself, and the less-than-glorious aftermath. In other words, it is a procedural that has little to do with being a courtroom judge. Yet Zagel writes compellingly and convincingly. About one-quarter of the way through Money to Burn, I started caring about his characters, who come alive, and became engrossed in the plot as well. Would the massive theft gain the reputation as one of those “perfect” crimes? Or would the only person who could foil the perfect crime, a dogged Chicago police detective, prevail? The welcome bonus comes from the pungent observations on the justice system made by author Zagel, who, as a sitting judge, has heard a variety of civil and criminal cases involving federal jurisdiction. Here is a sampling: • Judge Devine is about to sentence an investment adviser who bilked trusting clients. The investment adviser pleaded guilty to a single count of mail fraud, limiting his maximum sentence to five years. Writes Zagel:
A good prosecutor would have settled for no less than a 10 or 15-year ceiling on a plea bargain. If [the defendant] had said no to that deal, a good prosecutor would have taken him to trial and convicted him of dozens of frauds. [The defendant] was lucky not to have a good prosecutor. Years ago, when I was in the United States Attorney’s office, I approved hiring him. He made a good beginning and then got lazier every year. I guessed what happened. There were over 100 victims scattered over the country, and [the defendant's] records were a mess. The prosecutor had an easy choice for him. One, spend a lot of nights at the office taking pains to reconstruct the record and then haul himself around the nation to find out which victims would be good witnesses. Two, forget about all that hard work and take the one count where he happened to have good records and two decent local witnesses and offer a quick deal for a plea to that count. . . . I could not even order restitution paid to any victim but the two involved in the single count of fraud. If another victim wanted to get money back, that victim would have to pay a lawyer to do the work the prosecutor should have done.

• Entering the perennial debate about whether former prosecutors or defense counsel are biased as judges, Zagel’s fictional jurist comments:

Defense lawyers who become judges often achieve fame as great friends of the prosecution. One of them sits on my court and has told me, “You were a prosecutor, so you might have entertained some doubt about the guilt of the defendant. As a defense lawyer, I had no doubt at all. You may have wondered whether he was a really bad guy. I usually knew he was worse than you could imagine.” Prosecutors who become judges sometimes become the bane of their breed; the judge recalls his own days as a giant in the courtroom and resents the pygmy that now stands in his former place. If the prosecutor does not toe the judge’s line, the judge may start ruling against the prosecutor just to show him who is the boss. A judge who is angry enough can kill a prosecutor’s case by ignoring the law.

A verdict on Money to Burn is easy to reach: With an improbable plot made sort of probable, aided and abetted by a comfortable prose style and by a gang of insights culled from real-life experience, Judge Zagel’s novel is a guilty pleasure. Steve Weinberg is a free-lance journalist in Columbia, Mo. He is completing a multiyear study of local prosecutors’ offices across the nation.

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