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by L.F. Robertson
Titan, May 2017
352 pages
ISBN: 1785652788

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For law nerds, TWO LOST BOYS is loaded with information about death-penalty appeals in the California justice system. Janet Moodie, an appellate lawyer hired to defend serial killer Andy Hardy, cannot understand how a man of Hardy's cognitive impairments could have planned and carried out the murders for which he faces the death penalty, nor is it clear how Hardy's trial lawyer could have failed to mount a mental disability defense. Andy's brother Emory, a co-defendant for the crimes, seems to be wily and nasty enough to have carried out the pair's three kidnappings, three rapes, and two murders, but Emory has been given life imprisonment, not death. Over all, the strangely distant, intrusive mother of the two prisoners seems to hover over Janet's every move.

Dramatis personae: Janet Moodie, criminal appellate lawyer with a panic disorder who prefers to live alone and isolated; Terrence Moran, public defender and Janet's husband who committed suicide; Gavin Moran, Janet and Terrence's grown son, living in Australia to escape the tragedy of his father's suicide; investigator and friend Dave Rothstein, who watches over Janet as she fights her grief; Andy and Emory Hardy, imprisoned as serial kidnappers, rapists, and killers, the objects of Janet's current appeals process; Eva Hardy, Andy and Emory's mother, wife of a violent man who fathered Andy and Emory, daughter of parents who were mysteriously killed when she was young; Len Hardy, Andy and Emory's father and another person connected with the family who has mysteriously disappeared; Jimmy Kitteridge, Eva's previous husband with whom she had a daughter, and who is now married to Charlene; Carla, Jimmy's and Eva's daughter, streetwalker, drug addict, now dying of liver disease and possessed of some interesting secrets; jailors, inmates, lawyers, judges.

In Robertson's legal mystery, we know much: who the criminals are and where they are: behind bars. We know their parents and dwelling places, their victims, their habits. The law has already passed judgement upon them, and so the tension here is, did the brothers, especially Andy, who appears to be mentally deficient, receive a fair trial and a sentence that fits his crime? The novel unfolds as Janet pursues her sense that Andy was mentally incapable of kidnapping prostitutes and planning their murder, and that there had to have been a mastermind. She is stumped by several things, some of which are her own demons. Several times in the novel, her dead husband and their absent son rest heavily on her mind, and she must work her way through her losses. The California justice system, as well, follows laws which are succinctly put, but it is carried out by living humans, whose decisions may be based on any number of ideas, statutes, foibles, or prejudices. Finally, Eva Hardy is hiding something, and her slippery personality, her breast-beating motherhood, enable her to sidestep questioning that seems to come to close to the truth.

The case does not break until Janet tracks down Eva's first child, her daughter Carla who, ill with liver cancer, has, with difficulty, turned her back on drugs, and come to decide to talk to Janet about her half-brothers.

TWO LOST BOYS explores compelling themes: the aims and limits of motherhood and fatherhood; the roles of children; the carriage and miscarriage of justice; and the effect of justice on crime. However (you, dear reader, knew there was to be a however, didn't you?): Robertson, though armed with compelling themes, is so far unable to develop compelling characters. Although a sentence or two may give a character a past, the work of the novel is to perform, image, reveal, and unfold that past and thereby entertain.

I have recently been dipping into my volume of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes' violin-playing, cocaine addiction, chemistry experiments, and brother Mycroft are additive. They create Holmes and define a unified being who makes sense on the page. His various hobbies and tics define Holmes' investigative self, the self which is the center of our interest as readers. Conan Doyle does not tell us of Holmes' romantic flings; these are irrelevant to his operation. In our current novel, Robertson adds, inexplicably, details which are not additive. The descriptions of other clients Janet defends, while they may in fact be the reality of an appellate defender's life, do not a memorable novel make. In the same vein, descriptions of places can be so powerful in creating and evoking a reader's emotion in a murder mystery—unless they are not drawn to do so. Details, by themselves, do not make an inhabited landscape, filled with history and passion that make us human.

§ Dr. C. Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature. She is a fan of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, June 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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