Florida Weekly

Punishment is a pleasure in debut legal thriller

“Punishment,” by Linda Rocker. Wheatmark. 248 pages. $18.95 trade paper; $4.61 Kindle e-book.

Retired judge Linda Rocker has set her first novel in West Palm Beach, taking us into the courthouse in significant architectural detail. Hallways, stairways, parking areas, judges’ chambers, courtrooms and other related locations are handled with authority. So are the workings of the courthouse: trial procedure from jury selection on through the interaction between judges and other court personnel, bailiffs in particular. In fact, the primary character among many important ones is Casey Portman, bailiff to Judge Janet Kanterman.

One plot concern has to do with an explosion in the courthouse that, while doing little damage, stirs things up and puts everyone on edge. The threat of a follow-up to this assault on the system lingers in the background. Who is behind it? What is the motive?

Linda Rocker Linda Rocker The main plot is the sensational trial of a man charged with using his trained attack dog as a deadly weapon in the murder of hish wife. As Casey and Judge Kanterman preparep for and move into the proceedings, readers learn that the deceased woman’s father is attending all phases of the trial. Doubtful that justice will prevail, he is prepared to take things into his own hands. Thus, another plot thread is developed that takes us into the mind and actions of this tragically suffering man who is obsessed with vengeance.

When Judge Kanterman becomes too ill to preside over this trial, her colleague Judge Barbara Clarke receives the assignment. There are hints that someone might have poisoned the liberal Judge Kanterman to get her off the bench for this trial.

Judge Clarke’s busy schedule will become even more hectic, when things are already difficult in her office. Ben, her bailiff, has been acting quite strangely, and his friend Casey is aware of it as well. Then Ben is murdered. Is this courthouse doomed to violence? Casey, up to speed on the “dogicide” case, takes Ben’s place working with Judge Clarke.

Things are not well in Judge Clarke’s home life, either. Her scoundrel of a husband, Ellison Watson, is not only cheating on her but is mixed up in illegal drug activities. These involve not only a shadowy figure named Jack McGinty, but also the murdered bailiff.

To add to the complications, a relative of McGinty’s makes it onto the jury. This young woman somehow gets away with texting the proceedings to Jack. Why does he need to know the details of this trial?

The final plot line is the romantic one: Casey slides into an affair with Luke Anderson, the chief of police.

In crafting her complex narrative, the author uses the familiar structural techniques of shifting point of view and moving back and forth in time. Each perspective reveals different facts and understandings about one or more of the plot lines. More importantly, each parcel of plot and perspective creates its own suspense. By alternating perspectives while advancing the main plot and the subplots, the author can ratchet up the suspense to greater and greater intensity.

In employing this ambitious technique, Ms. Rocker’s reach sometimes exceeds her grasp. Some transitions create a bit too much disorientation and confusion. On the whole, however, this method serves the author and the reader well.

Another dimension of the novel that could be strengthened is the West Palm Beach setting. It needs more texture, more sense of neighborhood, more atmosphere. Indeed, it needs more of what mystery writer Jonathan King, who also sets stories in West Palm Beach, does so well. Characterization is one of Ms. Rocker’s great strengths. It’s easy to believe in her fictional personages. Though some, like the characterizations of the chief opposing counsels, are based on types, the portraits become sufficiently individualized. Judge Rocker observed plenty of lawyers during her time on the bench. The same efficient, balanced presentation of general and specific traits runs through the fairly large cast of characters in her first book.

Conceived by its Palm Beach Gardens author as the first novel in a trilogy, “Punishment” has more than enough going for it for me to recommend it and look forward to the next installment of Casey Portman’s life at court. Readers can find the opening chapters of “Blame” at the back of the present volume. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and freelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

Original Source – Florida Weekly

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