Friday, December 25, 2015

Defender of the Innocent by Lawrence Block

A book of crime fiction may seem an odd choice for Christmas Day, I admit. But this is a book, at its heart, about innocence -- and what day is more appropriate for that?

Martin Ehrengraf is a criminal defense attorney with two quirks -- just enough to hang a series of crime short-stories from -- first, that he absolutely and irrevocably believes in the innocence of the poor souls who can afford to hire him at his sky-high rates, and, secondly, that he works on contingency, and thus only gets paid if his client is set free. Oh, and one other thing: he never loses a case. He rarely even sees the inside of a courtroom, but his work ahead of trial is generally sufficient to have his clients exonerated and freed forever.

Block has been writing precise, pointed stories about Ehrengraf for nearly forty years now -- the first one appeared in 1978 -- but he's been careful not to push those quirks too far. Defender of the Innocent collects all of the stories about Ehrengraf: just a dozen of them, coming only every few years. (Or, to be more precise, coming whenever Block came up with a new twist on the Ehrengraf story -- they all come out the same way, so adding in complications and reversals was the way to make each new story distinct and strong.) The first eight were originally collected as Ehrengraf for the Defense in 1994, meaning Block has only had four good Ehrengraf plot ideas in the past twenty years.

But that's all fine: you don't want to read this book straight through anyway. Since Ehrengraf's methods will be the same in any case -- although we readers never are quite sure about exactly what he has done to free the defendants that we usually are quite sure did actually commit the murders they are accused of -- running through a number of them in quick succession would be too much of the same good thing, like gorging on meringue.

Block is a master of nasty crime short stories -- he's a master of many things, but that one is remarked on less often, since short stories are a minor sidebar field these days -- and the Ehrengraf cases are some of his smartest and nastiest. They have a tight formal structure, almost like a sonnet, and Block plays changes on that form with each of the successive stories. Perhaps we shouldn't wish that he could write more of them, but instead be amazed that he's found twelve variations on this tight theme -- twelve very distinctive and pointed variations -- so far.

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