Ever since the days of Erle Stanley Gardner, practicing attorneys have written some of the best legal thrillers, incorporating their own experiences into the mix. So, it’s no surprise that Stephen Penner, an experienced prosecutor, knows his way around the courtroom and, in his novel “Tribal Court,” keeps things interesting for readers when he’s describing the legal proceedings. But once these attorney authors get away from the hallowed halls of justice, they don’t always fare so well in describing the rest of the human experience. And that’s what happens to Penner. The closer the story in “Tribal Court” gets to the courtroom, the better the novel is.
Actually, the courtroom in this book isn’t the familiar type of courtroom seen in most legal thrillers. Instead, as the title indicates, it’s a court for Native American litigants, presided over by a Native American judge. Penner’s series hero, Dave Brunelle winds up in tribal court due to an unusual series of events. A young member of a fictional Seattle-area tribe is arrested for killing an older man who was also a member of the tribe. Although the murder took place in a downtown Seattle park, the defense attorney gets the case moved to tribal court, where Brunelle must prove the defendant’s guilt before a jury of his fellow tribe members. The case appears open-and-shut, but the deceased happened to be a child molester, one of whose victims was the defendant’s niece, and the slick defense attorney raises a century-old tribal defense of blood revenge, sort of the Native American version of “an eye for an eye.”
Author Penner’s familiarity with criminal procedure and his obvious research into the intricacies of tribal law make the legal proceedings in this case fascinating at times. Dave Brunelle is an experienced prosecutor, but he’s outwitted on several occasions by the defense attorney, a highly attractive associate at a big Seattle law firm wanting to make partner by notching a win in a high profile case. Readers will get inside Brunelle’s head as he attempts to come up with a winning strategy in a case with as despicable a victim as you’ll find. Also, although there isn’t as much standard police procedure in “Tribal Court” as in some of Penner’s other books, the interrogation scenes here are quite well done, too.
Unfortunately, when Brunelle gets out of court, things go downhill. He has a rocky relationship with his sort-of girlfriend, the local medical examiner, which never feels credible, instead coming across as one of those manufactured breakups just for the sake of creating conflict that are seen all too often in fiction. Further, the author would have us believe that Brunelle, a veteran prosecutor who has probably seen every dirty trick in the book that defense attorneys could throw at him, turns into a bowl of mush when one sexy defense attorney displays a bit of cleavage and flirts with him. Seeing a middle-aged prosecutor repeatedly act like a lustful first-year law student does not make for credible or interesting reading.
Further, the author apparently doesn’t trust the strength of his own story. Although the case as described in the first couple of chapters was strong enough to support an entire novel, the author later throws in plenty of complications in the form of additional dead bodies, including Brunelle’s tribal co-counsel. These new murders may be revenge killings of their own, turning the blood revenge into an all-out blood feud. The author eventually wraps everything up and explains the reasoning behind the new killings, but, in doing so, he makes the actual resolution of the book’s main murder case rather anti-climactic.
“Tribal Court” reads like two different books: a top-notch courtroom thriller, and a mediocre, cliched legal melodrama. Fortunately, there’s enough of the good stuff for me to give this book a mild recommendation. There’s enough of the “good stuff” to keep readers interested until the finish, although they probably won’t like the exact way events play out. The author’s knowledge of the law is first-rate, but his knowledge of the human psyche still needs a lot of work.