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Life Sentence    by David Ellis order for
Life Sentence
by David Ellis
Order:  USA  Can
Putnam, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The story opens rather oddly on a burglary at the home of one of the ancillary characters, Bennett Carey, who shoots the intruder in the back as he flees. Ben works for the narrator, Jon Soliday, who is partner in a law firm as well as Chief Counsel to Senator Grant Tully, himself son of a former State Senator. Jon was also the Senator's boyhood friend, and has recently been divorced from his wife. He lives with two pugs, Jake and Maggie and tells us 'I don't own pugs. They own me.' Tully is currently the underdog in a run for governor, but Jon has just discovered his side's Ace.

Jon has found a technicality in their opponent Lang Trotter's nominating papers that makes his bid illegal, and proposes to use it. But the Senator, a very practical politician, proposes something tantamount to blackmail instead. Jon is not at all comfortable with this, but agrees to consult the Tully family's personal lawyer, Dale Garrison. Garrison dies in suspicious circumstances soon after a meeting with Soliday and the latter is quickly arrested for murder. In a reversal of roles (since Jon defended Ben regarding the intruder shooting), Carey handles his defense. The noose tightens when the police discover a note that Jon recently received, threatening to reveal the 'secret that nobody knows'.

What is this secret? The story reverts in time to June 1979, when Grant and Jon were new grads heading to an out of state party. Drinking and drugs were involved and a young woman died. Though Jon does not remember what happened, he was arrested for murder. Grant's father exerted his influence to fix the situation. The investigation was closed, and the records sealed. It seems to the reader that past and present events must be linked, but how? Lurking on the periphery is an ex-con with ties to both the dead lawyer and the past secret. As the trial unfolds, Ben fears that his defense might bring the old case to the public eye and so ruin by association his best friend Grant Tully.

Life Sentence is an excellent legal politico-thriller that explores the boundaries of friendship where power and position are involved. Though I glimpsed the bare bones of the ending early on, it was well developed with a court ambush, and fleshed out in details that definitely surprised me. I also appreciated the realistic handling of the relationship between Jon and his ex-wife, who showed up to support him in his darkest hours. And I was left to wonder how many of the actors in this drama truly received a life sentence.

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