Cheater's Game - Paul Levine

When it comes to my conduct in trials, I have only two rules. I won’t lie to the court or let a witness do it. Other than that, batten the hatches, because I sail straight into storms.


Bolden spent a few more minutes talking about the judge’s wise instructions and the jurors’grave responsibilities, then thanked them all and sat down.


I got to my feet, nodded to the judge, buttoned my suit coat, smiled warmly, and said my six favorite words in the English language. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury . . .”

When it comes to legal thrillers, those six words are pretty much my favorite, too. I want to see the protagonist in the courtroom, plying his or her tradesure, I get that a lot of the action has to take place outside of the courtroom, but it seems even my favorite fictional lawyers are spending fewer pages there all the time. Since Perry Mason (in print or on screen) made me a fan of the genre, everything outside the courthouse just doesn't interest me as much. The fact that Lassiter utters those words at the 52% mark thrilled me--jury selection started 5% earlier. When the trial portion of a novel beings in the first half, I'm happy as you can hope for.


Which isn't to say that the material before then wasn't goodit's just secondary for me. But we can't get to the jury if we don't have a crime, a client, and a lawyer. We should probably start with them.


Our (chief) narrator, protagonist and the lawyer we met in above is Jake Lassiter, a former Miami Dolphin player turned defense attorney. Thanks to the repeated hits to the head he took as a football player, Lassiter suffers from C.T.E.Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathya progressive degenerative disease affecting the brain. In response to this, Lassiter's recently stopped his defense work and works for the Florida Bar.


So what gets Lassiter back to the defense table? His nephew, Kip. Lassiter basically raised Kip, and is his father in all but name. The relationship isn't as close as it should be lately, but when Kip needs him, Lassiter's there for him. Kip is freakishly smart, but some foolish moves in college resulted in him getting the boot. So he's gone another route and is working as an SAT coach. At a certain point, that coaching turned into taking the tests for his clients (or arranging to be present in-person for a little hands-on coaching). As we've all seen recently, the Feds swept in, arresting several people involvedand Kip is put in the position of taking the fall for a lot of the unethical behavior.


It's clear that he's guiltyhe admits what he didbut he's also the only one that anyone's seriously prosecuting. Lassiter was already going to do everything he could for Kip, but the injustice of his being singled-out for prosecution really provokes his uncle's ire. The gloves are off when it comes to this defense.


Which is a little trickier than he's used tothis is in Federal Court, where Lassiter hasn't tried a case before. The dynamic's a little different, and the judge is far less open to antics. (doesn't stop Lassiter, it should be noted). The federal prosecutor is pretty chummy with the judge, but seems to play fair and is a good opponent for Lassiter. She's a great trial lawyer herself and won't give him an inchbut will admit when he bests her on a point. I seriously loved the dynamic between the twoit's not the typical adversarial kind of thingit is adversarial, make no mistake, but there's a respect and lack of hostility there. A significant portion (as I indicated above) of the novel is about the trial and I loved every second of it.


Not only is Lassiter dealing with the emotional weight of defending his nephew (and what it would mean to lose), but he's dealing with the cognitive and physical effects of C.T.E.I don't remember ever reading anything close to this before. I respect Levine for trying it, and even more so for doing it so wellI don't know enough to say that he depicts this perfectly, but it's done with sensitivity and care (and, sure, a light touch), making me think it's pretty accurate.


Our other narrator is Melissa Gold, the specialist who's been treating Lassiter since his diagnosisshe's also a leading researcher in the field. She's also Lassiter's fiancé, and practically a stepmother to Kip. She's about as invested in this trial as either of them, but is more focused on Lassiter's well-being. Her chapters provide an outside look at how Lassiter is dealing with the trial and everything around it. It's an interesting way to get around some of the limitations of the first-person narration.


This is not maudlin (as easy as it would be), it's not all somber, sober and serious, either. Lassiter is a jokey kind of guy and that comes through in his narration and his dialogue. This isn't a comedy by any means, but there's a lot of wit, and more than a few laughs throughout. That doesn't take away from any of the tension in the courtroom (or with Lassiter's condition), but it flavors the book. Think of the Andy Carpenter books without dogs and you've got a good idea how this reads.


Fifteen years ago, I became a fan of Levine's Solomon vs. Lord series after about 20-30 pages and read those all several times. I can't explain why, but I never tried the Lassiter books (although I meant to)I now know that was a mistake, and one I hope to rectify. This is written in such a way that you don't need to have read any of the novels ahead of this, but it'd surely add a little depth to some of the serialized aspects of the novel. But I want to stress, it's completely accessible for anyone who hasn't encountered Lassiter before.


Good courtroom action, fun characters, and a wonderful voice. Cheater's Game is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.