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“Good Counsel” by Tim Junkin Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 304 pages; $23.95 Tim Junkin’s descriptions of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries in his first novel, “The Waterman,” were so vivid that you put the book down believing that by its pages alone you could chart the estuary’s waters. In his second novel, “Good Counsel,” Junkin again provides readers with a detailed prose map. Yet this time it’s of a man’s troubled soul. The distressed spirit belongs to the protagonist and narrator of “Good Counsel,” Jack Stanton. As Junkin’s book opens, Stanton has just spent a morning testifying before a Washington, D.C., grand jury in a case in which he appears to be the target. A former public defender who is now in private practice, Stanton is facing an old nemesis in prosecutor Morgan Langrell. Stanton recalls that he and Langrell have locked horns in court frequently over the years, and that the U.S. Attorney would take special satisfaction in crushing him. Although Stanton does not immediately divulge the precise nature of the actions that have landed him in front of a grand jury, he underlines the seriousness of his situation when he takes it on the lam during the lunch recess. High-tailing it to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Stanton eventually hides out in a former colleague’s temporarily abandoned summer home on the Chesapeake Bay. He passes his time by drinking and brooding on his past — recalling episodes from his law career and his failed marriage. He is ultimately befriended and housed by a local woman who harbors a terrible secret of her own. Junkin, a name partner at D.C.’s Asbill, Junkin, Moffitt & Boss, spent many summers of his youth on the Eastern Shore. That the place has a firm hold on his heart and imagination is clear. Both his novels are set on roughly the same turf and are populated by the salty contrarians that seem endemic to the area. “The Waterman” was an accomplished debut. “Good Counsel” is an even better book. Junkin tells Stanton’s story with a spare, sinewy prose that is powerful without being flashy. The relatively seamless narrative flows almost effortlessly, so much so that I suspect Junkin had to work hard to achieve the effect. Junkin’s decision to make Stanton his narrator was a good one, but not a choice without risks. While hard to classify, “Good Counsel” can probably best be described as a suspense novel. And much of its suspense depends on Stanton judiciously rolling out the particulars of his life and his ethical misadventures — with just enough detail at any given interval to retain the interest of a reader without yielding too much of his secret too soon. And while Junkin had to labor away on his tale with this formula always in his mind, he also had to take care to hide from readers the true nature of his game. The story that Stanton unfurls must appear to emerge organically from the wellspring of his memory and not be the product of authorial machinations. For a puppet show to truly succeed, the audience must never catch even a glimpse of the puppeteer. And Junkin does a good job of keeping out of the frame. His Stanton is an exceedingly believable and well-limned character. He is, we learn from his account of events, a gifted litigator, endowed with an “ability to size up people, to find the weaknesses in a witness’s story, to read demeanor, gestures, to see the truth behind the mask.” These same qualities make him a reliable narrator. Stanton is intelligently introspective and seldom self-indulgent. In fact, he is stingingly honest when taking personal inventory. Consider this passage in which he looks back on his imploded legal career and the accumulating costs of the ethical accommodations he made along the way: “I relive my mistakes. How the trained intellect failed to detect its own undoing, case after case, year after year, failed to notice its own backward slide as the compromises became commonplace and took their toll. An imperceptible erosion. Like the erosion of the shoreline by the tide. Undetectable on any given day, in any given month. But after 10 or 20 years, a marked contrast. The landscape changes. Islands disappear.” Stanton’s observations about the ethical challenges facing criminal defense lawyers who must try to give their clients the best representation possible without violating professional strictures they have vowed to uphold are heartfelt and verisimilar. At the risk of making that age-old reviewer’s mistake of too closely equating an author’s creation with the author, I’m going to suggest that Junkin, whose own job history is not unlike the fictional Stanton’s, may have wrestled, or has known lawyers who may have wrestled, with some of the same demons that have gotten the better of Stanton. “Good Counsel” could thus be required reading for a legal ethics class. Yet it lacks none of the ingredients found in good fiction. Its characters are solid and well-developed. Its story is well-paced and compelling, driving the reader on. And its conclusion is not a letdown. What more can be asked of a work of fiction?

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