Worthy Brown's Daughter
A novel by Phillip Margolin
Book review by Jules Brenner
Harper, released 3/24/15, 368 pp., $15.99
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Mystery writers do unexpected things. After virtually defining crime and detective work in South L.A. with his "Easy" Rawlins series, author Walter Mosley moved to New York and started a new set of stories and characters including a sci-fi adventure. Perhaps less drastic, "Worthy Brown's Daughter" is a case of a mystery writer (Margolin) turning to the historical South for a classic Western (with plenty of crime). But, Margolin clings to his roots with the legal angle.

According to the author's notes, he'd been thinking about writing this book for some time. That would be well before "Woman With a Gun," for instance. He charts out a tale set in Portland, Oregon in the 1850s with protagonist Matthew Penny, as a gun-totin' lawyer with unassailable moral fiber but a weak streak running through his Alpha Male habits. Though he loses his dear wife in a tragic accident crossing the plains by wagon, and thinks of his loss almost every minute of every day, he's also good looking enough to attract the best looking AND richest gal in these parts, Heather Gillette, daughter of the humanistic magnate Benjamin Gillette, a quite sympathetic character.

The main thing is that Penny's against slavery and he becomes embroiled in a legal case about a murder -- one he thinks he committed. But, nobody believes him when he tries to confess. Besides, if they did, the black man he freed and now represents, Worthy Brown, confessed to the crime and is sitting in a cell awaiting a trial as the guilty party and probable hanging.

However much his lawyer (Penny) exhorts the prisoner to tell the truth, Brown refuses to alter his story and bear witness to what really happened. He has reason to prefer the rope, which lawyer Penny argues is a terrible strategy.

We know that it all circles around the title character. Roxanne Brown by name.

It also includes the despicable shyster lawyer Caleb Barbour who's morality is bottom-of-the-barrel; a spiteful, money-hungry harlot named Sharon Hill who is beautiful enough to use it to blind men to her evil purposes, and an esteemed judge who is stupid enough to fall for her wiles.

As a classic Western, Margolin peoples his legal drama in the time the West was in the early stages of becoming lawful and Wall Street barons were busy building the infra-structure of the American economy, the railroads. The story is full of stock characters and nickle-plated cliches of yesteryear. Yet, there's no doubting that the style was no accident and that it was a challenge to do it this way and captivate the reader despite overfamiliarity with the idiom.

There's plenty at stake; ample suspense; quite a lot of predictability -- but also a reasonable core of emotion so that if you get past the first couple of chapters, you're likely to be roped in. It ain't hard core nasty but the sharp teeth of drama nips at you.

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