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by Phillip Margolin
Harper, January 2014
362 pages
ISBN: 0062195344

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

In what represents a departure for Phillip Margolin, the author deserts the current age for Portland, Oregon, in 1860. He has not, however, deserted the legal system as a narrative source.

Matthew Penny, a young lawyer, has recently emigrated from Ohio to the new state of Oregon, just a year old, in hopes of establishing a legal practice in an exciting, expanding new country. But his optimism is dashed when he loses his wife in an accident and, still grieving, finds that this new frontier is not especially welcoming to outsiders.

Penny is a man of principle, something that does endear him in a town populated to a large degree by folks sailing close to the wind as they pursue their fortunes. We first see him in action as he intervenes to prevent a lynching. He is a man who believes in the law and so, when a former slave named Worthy Brown pleads with him to help him retrieve his sixteen-year-old daughter, being held against her will by one Caleb Barbour. Barbour had owned Brown and his daughter as slaves in Georgia. He brought them to Oregon, where slavery was illegal, promising to free the pair of them after a year of indentured labour. But the year has passed and the daughter, Roxanne, is still under Barbour's control. Though Penny is sympathetic, there are complications, as Barbour is the lawyer representing the richest man in town, Benjamin Gillette, in a suit brought by a client of Penny's. Nevertheless, after Brown does Penny a useful service, he does agree.

It is a commitment that will involve Penny in a trial that carries very serious moral and ethical considerations, as Barbour turns up dead and Brown is charged with the murder. And all would be reasonably well if the attention were focussed squarely on this case and on the surrounding atmosphere of racial prejudice that impedes any real hope of achieving justice.

But there is a second plot line, involving Sharon Hill, an evil temptress and possible killer, that is both lurid and melodramatic and fundamentally unserious. Sharon Hill, or Hill, as the author usually refers to her, is straight out of central casting - a "full-figured woman," with a face framed by "ebony ringlets" that are in stark contrast to her "milk-white complexion." Oh, yes, she has "piercing green eyes" as well and a throaty voice. There isn't a man in town who can resist her charms and she has every intention of seducing the entire legal community if she has to to get her way. In fairness, it should be pointed out that Hill is not the only woman described in quaintly old-fashioned stereotypes, with special attention to her breasts - they all are.

There is a puzzling old-fashioned quality to the book as a whole. The good characters are without stain, the black characters are touchingly loyal, the bad characters are irredeemably evil. They all speak in an awkward idiom that may be the result of Margolin struggling to achieve a sense of historical distance, but that sometimes sounds more like the title cards of old silent westerns than any speech likely to have passed the lips of actual early settlers in the West. As far as I can recall, no one ever utters a swear word, however mild.

Still, the book does have something to recommend it. There are not too many thrillers set in Portland, Oregon in the early days for one thing and it is diverting to be reminded of a time when that city was a muddy little town on the edge of nowhere in particular, struggling to become a prosperous and law-abiding city. More seriously, the Worthy Brown narrative, based indeed in part on an actual event, is a sharp reminder of the extent to which slavery poisoned the entire nation. Oregon was not a slave state, but it was very far from an egalitarian one. When it entered the Union in 1859, its constitution barred free Negroes from settling in the state unless they were residents before the constitution was ratified, indicating a general desire to keep the state white. It's the sort of past history that contemporary readers may well wish to forget but which must nevertheless be kept in mind, shameful though it may be.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, February 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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