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Misdemeanor Man by Dylan Schaffer (Bloomsbury, 339 pages, $23.95) The legal thriller endures from decade to decade despite the enervating mediocrity of so many of its exemplars. For every adroitly crafted Scott Turow or John Grisham offering, a dozen ham-handed and improbable legal yarns limp into the bookstores. Television, too, has been a vast junkyard of irredeemably inartful but highly popular depictions of lawyers and judges, from as long ago as “Perry Mason” through “L.A. Law” to “The Practice.” (And don’t get me started on the purportedly genuine jurists on TV — Judges Judy, Joe Brown, Hatchett, and their ilk. Can’t we enact a canon of judicial ethics that prohibits their buffoonery?) Readers and viewers are either exceedingly indulgent with or, more disconcerting, indiscriminately credulous about most depictions of the legal system in action. Our ravenous appetite for legal thrillers and the stratospheric sales of a handful of authors have seduced many a lawyer into writing that first book. This month, yet another virginal attorney-author plunges into the marketplace. Dylan Schaffer, a California criminal appellate lawyer, takes his stab with Misdemeanor Man, an offbeat but ultimately unsatisfying debut. Schaffer recognizes that the principal elements of legal thrillers have become predictable: A grisly murder or two; a hard-charging prosecutor; a sexy moll or glamorous, leggy witness; a high-level official driven by crass political goals; corruption of the decent; and a down-to-the-wire murder trial are regular fare. Press materials from the publisher report that Schaffer decided to “write the un-legal thriller,” a story that would not rely on the standard tropes of the genre. Misdemeanor Man tries to be captivating while departing from well-trod paths. Our protagonist is Gordon Seegerman, a lazy public defender who is content with his daily slog through a portfolio of routine misdemeanor prosecutions. As the novel opens, his client Harold Dunn, a shabby and inscrutable misfit, is charged with lewd exposure in a public place. The case seems cut-and-dried until inconsistencies draw Seegerman’s curiosity. The D.A.’s office, which has assigned the prosecution to a young assistant and former girlfriend of Seegerman, targets the lowly Dunn with inordinate aggressiveness. Seegerman digs into the evidence while his client, mysteriously bailed out by a shadowy figure, complicates his defense by visiting the witnesses, then disappearing from sight. Seegerman visits Dunn’s employer, a respected charity bearing the quite implausible acronym “G-O-D”, in search of character witnesses, but soon learns that G-O-D has financial connections to the father of the government’s key witness. Meanwhile, Seegerman’s cranky father, whose faculties are quickly dissipating in the fog of Alzheimer’s, regularly totters into one mishap or another. Before long, the book is laden with plot convolutions and a panoply of subsidiary characters. Some figures are only sketchily drawn. Others represent a rather pat diversity, like Seegerman’s pals from work and his off-hours Barry Manilow cover band (more about that later), who include a handsome African-American investigator, a tough-talking lesbian, and a clever Indian deft with a computer. Schaffer eventually falls back on the kind of plot devices that regularly populate legal thrillers: A witness is murdered, and Dunn is charged with her death; the monied and powerful are revealed to have unsavory connections; the aroma of politics and publicity influences law enforcement decisions; a potent and secretive criminal enterprise lurks in the shadows; a crusty old judge dominates his courtroom fiefdom through rashness and ridicule. If Schaffer had displayed more originality in deploying these artifices, he might have redeemed himself. But there are too many hallmarks of grade-B novels and movies here, including the tech-savvy buddy who covertly taps into top-secret data; the alcoholic, disgraced former cop and his bitter family; the coldly professional federal agents contrasted with rough-cut local officials; and the collection of evidence by tactics of dubious legality. Dialogue that is often sprightly and engaging is nonetheless marred by occasional triteness. Seegerman’s investigator boasts, at one point, “we’ll nail them” and one of the feds, regretting that she’d grown too fond of her assigned charge, confesses, “The truth is, I got too close.” There are glimmers of a promising author in Misdemeanor Man, and perhaps Schaffer’s next effort will be more appealing. His writing can be crisp and snappy, and he has mastered the critical genre ploy of sustaining momentum through quick scene shifts and tantalizing chapter endings. His courtroom scenes generally ring true, and when his lawyers chat with each other, the dialogue is convincing. Before it sprouts an excess of tangles, his crime story also shows clever crafting. Ultimately, though, the book’s flaws overshadow its pleasures. Perhaps the novel’s most frustrating failing is the subplot about Seegerman’s Manilow cover band. To Seegerman (and quite obviously Schaffer, too), Manilow is the great unsung pop music composer of the 20th century. An entire chapter, mercifully brief, trumpets Manilow’s genius and explains Seegerman’s devotion. One can easily believe an obsessesion with Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, or any number of giants whose confections have proven timeless, but Manilow’s songs, despite their catchiness, have receded into relative musical abandonment. Schaffer works too hard to correct what he believes is woeful underappreciation. Successful legal thrillers are tight, focused, and compelling. By its conclusion, Misdemeanor Man has sprouted too many plot tentacles and an excess of characters. The book may be an innocuous diversion for idle moments on the beach, and it introduces an author with potential, but it disappoints too often. Patrick McGlone is a senior attorney with Ullico Inc. in Washington, D.C.

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