AFTER DARK  By Phillip Margolin
My Review Five Stars*****
I have been a fan of this prolific, best selling author since reading a sampling from what would necessarily be classified as his early works. I remember picking up THE BURNING MAN (1996) and later on really liking SLEEPING BEAUTY (2004). However, it is accurate to say that it was his widely acclaimed tour de force GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (1993) that truly "sealed the deal" for me.
Most of us who are familiar with Margolin know that he is certainly a respected and well known veteran of the legal thriller genre. However, it is a bit troubling that critics refer to the author's more current works as "returning" to the level of excellence that underscored his early novels in the '90s (and I am guessing into the early part of the next decade). Therefore I was excited to read THE THIRD VICTIM (2018) which would satisfactorily demonstrate what Margolin has been doing lately to cement his legacy as an author who is deserving of what is not just lavish praise but a veritable host of accolades.
That said, THE THIRD VICTIM (2018) was a disappointment from this author. I rated the book with a middle of the road three stars, but I would add that I have no desire to read the second installment (THE PERFECT ALIBI). However, I was left quite puzzled about Margolin's trajectory as an author of legal thrillers. In my opinion going from GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN (1993) to THE THIRD VICTIM (2018) was like going from greatness or magnificence to good or mediocre.
I vowed then to vest enough interest in Margolin to go back and read his first two books, namely HEARTSTONE  and a full decade later THE LAST INNOCENT MAN . I thought it might be worthwhile to also read the novel he followed up with after his sensational book GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN, specifically AFTER DARK .
It's been awhile to be sure, but I have finally read (in order of publication) HEARTSTONE , THE LAST INNOCENT MAN , and more recently AFTER DARK . The first novel was abysmally bad (I gave it 2 Stars but only because at the time I was vowing to keep a 1-Star Rating for novels I did not finish), and the second book was just a notch above pathetic (I rated it 2.5 Stars which was generous).
The publication of AFTER DARK  followed his sensational Best-Seller GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN . I honestly wasn't sure what to expect after "wading through the murk" of his first two books referenced in the paragraph above. Surprisingly, after having read to the 35% mark or approximately one-third of the book, I decided that it was interesting, certainly a well written narrative, but not what I would call riveting or a real page turner. I assessed it as "very good so far" and I was encouraged by the strong likable female lead and the well developed characters who populated the book. I kept reading after I made the above observation and later it dawned on me that I had become enthralled by the story line and could hardly make myself put the book down.
A beautiful (and incredibly bright) young lawyer (Tracy Cavanaugh) has just completed a successful year clerking for an Oregon Supreme Court Justice and is ready to make her own idealistic mark on the legal system. Tracy has the work ethic and curriculum vitae to place her at pretty much any office or firm in the land. However, the eager young attorney desires nothing more than to learn at the side of "The Sorcerer" (Matthew Reynolds). Reynolds is a justice warrior of national renown, distinguished by his long list of clients who have beaten the Death Penalty when it was he who represented them in their trials. The title is derived from Reynolds asking Tracy the following question during her job interview:
“Tell me, Ms. Cavanaugh,” Reynolds asked in a neutral tone, “have you ever been to Stark, Florida, to the prison, after dark?”
He is referring to an attorney going to see a Death Row prisoner prior to his execution and then leaving the prison after his client is no longer alive. He informs her solemnly that he has never had to go to the prison after dark.
Tracy's inherent idealism, enthusiasm, and unquenchable thirst for knowledge strikes a chord with the eccentric genius, and she is hired to work alongside the famous Defense Attorney. It is a "dream come true" for our likeable protagonist, and she is also served a bonus in the process, namely Matt's hunky investigator.
Early in the novel the reader meets the sexy, strong "take no prisoners" DA Abbie Griffen. She is in the midst of a nasty divorce proceeding with her soon to be ex-spouse, Oregon Supreme Court Justice Robert Hunter Griffen. Significantly, Abbie had put a remorseless murderer on Death Row (Charlie Deems) and her estranged husband had written the opinion on the Appeal to reverse the court's decision. Deems was a free man.
Abbie naturally is appalled by her estranged husband's actions, and is prone to angry rants to that effect in front of witnesses. The usually unflappable DA had also threatened his life in front of a witness when an anonymous phone call led her to his love nest with another woman.
In short, there is a lot going on in this complex and brilliantly executed thriller. A young woman named Laura, clerking for Justice Griffen is found murdered, and later Griffen himself is blown to Kingdom Come in a car bomb. The tough Abbie Griffen meanwhile faces off against the psychopathic Charlie Deems, at least she THINKS it's him (the intruder trying to break into her home is dressed all in black and his face is covered). She retreats to their property on the ocean front for some much needed relaxation, but is followed and then hunted by the same (?) unidentified attacker. The author successfully delivers several intriguing plot twists and turns along the way to a powerful and suspense filled climax.
The eccentric Matthew, in addition to being the most highly acclaimed opponent of the Death Penalty in the nation and the most deadly effective adversary any DA could possibly face in court, is harboring a very private secret. When an ambitious and totally loathsome Special Prosecutor is brought in to arrest and prosecute Abbie for her husband's murder, she hires Matthew Reynolds to represent her and to defend her very life in what is to be a high profile Death Penalty Case. The State's chief witness for the prosecution is none other than (you guessed it) the stone cold killer she put on Death Row Charlie Deems. But the State had to have more evidence than that, though the brilliant Defense Attorney Matthew Reynolds. And so it is that the narrative kicks into high gear as part murder mystery with a good measure of psychological suspense and one simply sensational courtroom drama.
I apologize for the brief synopsis which kind of hints at the sheer escalation in this novel during which "just interesting" is transformed into simply riveting. I was on pins and needles trying to work out in my head how the author was going to "play" the ending. I started reading slower as I would figure out one potential outcome, and then another potential plot route, and then still another way he could potentially spring a shocking surprise ending. It drove me nuts but in an incredibly entertaining way.
The is truly a book I would deem "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly". Let's start with the "Good". Frankly I think this novel may be better and actually more memorable in many ways than GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN. The "Bad"? Well. NOBODY I can think of does "bad" BETTER than this author. Margolin has an uncanny ability to create the most sleazy fictional characters in his novels that the reader practically feels a compulsion to take a shower after reading the narrative he's that powerful and effective. He demonstrated this surprisingly effective knack for creating truly despicable characters beginning with his debut book HEARTSTONE  and again with THE LAST INNOCENT MAN [Reprint 1988]. This talent is on full display here with one heartless sociopath Charlie Deems. The "Ugly"? He lets you feel in an almost visceral way how bad that some men are, and yet when he creates an honest, law abiding, loyal, generous, and all-around decent character for the reader to like he spoils it by making the "good guy" (or in this case "good girl") SO genuinely righteous you want to vomit.
WARNING SPOILER COMMENTS AHEAD!!!
I simply hated the ending... could Tracy remain true to her own righteous ideals and NOT reveal the damning discoveries she had come across and the guilty knowledge she had inadvertently uncovered and now possessed? This may be a quagmire of a dilemma for a young idealist. In my opinion, though, an individual can possess lofty ideals of the law, and believe that they will always remain true to their unassailable ethics and moral code. But, if you take that person and place him or her in a real life situation that is rife with conflict and a raft of emotions which involves real people, most I believe would see that the "right" thing is not always as clear cut as he or she has always surmised. In AFTER DARK, our lead character doesn't deviate off the straight and narrow pathway her ideals dictate. I think the author felt compelled to finish the story in this manner.
The character of Defense Attorney Matthew Reynolds (called "The Sorcerer" because of his genius in the courtroom that seemed like nothing short of magic) is one of the most intriguing characters I have run across in crime fiction. However, this otherwise quintessential "Night in Shining Armor" in this case was tarnished (in my opinion) only of a bit of chicanery, defined as using his genius intellect to deceive and misdirect all those around him in the name of his obsessive love for Abby. The damsel in distress was NEVER really in distress since Matt would have confessed his own duplicity before she was ever convicted). In my mind it was never a question of murder (blowing a stone cold unscrupulous killer to kingdom come with a bit of dynamite in my book is not even a misdemeanor). I can understand the author's predilection to paint the heroine as straight as an arrow to the bitter end. Nevertheless, had I been in Tracy's shoes, I would never have informed the authorities of Matt's ("The Sorcerer'") "sleight of hand" behind the scenes or in the courtroom. But then, I AM one of the readers who actually LOVED the ending to HANNIBAL by Thomas Harris. Smile.