Twist of Fate
Let me start off saying that in 99% of cases I’m against the death penalty. It’s final and offers no way to undo it, and I’m also vengeful enough that I’d want a guilty person to spend years suffering for their crime. You’d think that I’d have enjoyed Mary Jo Putney’s latest release, in which views about the death penalty are discussed at length. Unfortunately, more often than not I felt like I was being lectured to, and that left me annoyed. Add to the mix too little romance and too many half-developed plots, and you have a recipe I’m not ready to try again.
Val Covington, a successful corporate lawyer who’d made partner in her swanky Baltimore firm by the age of 33, thought her life complete – until her Hollywood friend Rainey called. Val had helped Rainey adapt a book into a movie, and as the movie was a financial success, Val’s now come into a rather nice sum of money. Her friends urge her to follow her heart, so Val decides to give up corporate law because what she wants “to practice isn’t law, but justice.” So she purchases a remodeled church and starts her own practice. Her first case is for her paralegal/secretary Kendra.
Seventeen years earlier Kendra’s boyfriend, Daniel Monroe, was convicted and sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a young cop. Kendra swears Daniel’s innocent and was with her at the time of the murder. She agrees to work for Val, if Val will try at the eleventh hour to clear Daniel’s name.
Into the mix add Val’s new landlord, Rob Smith. Rob is an anti-death penalty advocate. His little brother was the “Avenging Angel,” an environmental terrorist – a man who set fires to coastal resorts killing four and injuring several others. Rob turned his brother in to the FBI with the understanding they wouldn’t ask for the death penalty, only his brother killed people in Texas and that state wouldn’t honor the agreement. Rob’s brother’s execution haunts him; he sees possibly helping to free Daniel as a chance to make up for turning his brother in.
Let’s start with Rob. When the story opens he is, as my mother would say, on the pity pot. He lives in perpetual guilt and drastically altered his lifestyle after his brother’s execution. He gave up his high-paying computer industry job in California, moved home to Baltimore, and started doing construction and graffiti clean-up jobs. The implication being that had he known the Texas prosecutors were going to pursue the death penalty, he would never have turned in his brother – despite the fact that his brother killed four people and would have continued to set firebombs. What’s heroic about a man who’d rather ignore the deaths of strangers just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt of his brother’s death? As he works on the investigation, fortunately, he begins to get back into the business of living, but liking Rob was very difficult.
Then there’s Val. This is supposed to be her story, but she’s the least interesting character. An overachiever, she’s trying to live up the expectations of her absentee lawyer father when she really wants to give in to the free-spiritedness she inherited from her mother. Her only unique feature is her unruly red hair; she’s otherwise straight out of romance novel central casting and merely a vehicle to convey Rob, Kendra, and Daniel’s stories.
Kendra was a much more interesting character and the story about Daniel and her is far more interesting than the romance between Rob and Val. Kendra was an unwed mother when the father of her child was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Despite the fact she was Daniel’s alibi, she’s been labeled a liar. She moved beyond that, got her education, became a paralegal, and raised their son to be an upstanding man. Most importantly – she never gave up on Daniel or her love for him. It’s her strength and belief that drives everyone in this story.
While this could have been an interesting and powerful story, Putney bungles it when her characters break into lecture mode. In stilted and unnatural dialogue they relate facts about the death penalty and preach against it. Those who are pushing for the execution are portrayed as caricatures who are too dumb or corrupt or emotional to see the truth right under their noses. It’s clear to the reader that Daniel is innocent, but Putney lacks all subtlety in stacking the deck against the legal system that has him on death row. The real crime is that Putney, so often brilliant in her characterizations and ability to tell a story, is so heavy-handed that it’s almost an insult to a readers’ intelligence.
There’s a strong “ripped from the headlines” vibe to this book; Rob’s story has “Unabomber” written all over it, and an author’s note indicates Daniel’s story is also based on a true story. This may be successful elsewhere, but with the exception of Kendra, little succeeds in this book. There is little romance in the book, and the occasional intimate scenes between speeches didn’t prove the hero and heroine were in love. The final straw was the over-the-top climax.
I love Mary Jo Putney’s historicals, but after suffering through Twist of Fate I think I’m going to give up on her contemporaries.