Bar News - June 23, 2006
Book Review: “Alibi: A Hard-boiled Lawyer Novel Set in the Queen City” By Stephen M. Murphy
By: Anita S. Becker
San Francisco attorney Stephen Murphy’s Alibi brings the reader into the Mike Hammer-like world of civil lawyer-turned-criminal-defense gumshoe. The novel’s Manchester, New Hampshire-based protagonist Dutch Francis soon discovers that at many levels things are not what they appear to be in the case of a troubled teen accused of murdering his boss.
This legal mystery is fast-paced, entertaining and, at turns, cynically thought-provoking. New Hampshire Bar Association members should enjoy the liberal doses of Granite State cultural and geographic references and the subtle caricatures of personalities and procedures within the legal system.
Murphy describes Dutch Francis’ courtroom rival, prosecutor Deputy Attorney General Peter Laflamme: “The attorney general’s office was located near the supreme court building, about a half mile from the Merrimack County courthouse where I had made a few appearances. When Laflamme walked out to the lobby, he greeted me like an old friend. ‘Dutch Francis. Good to meet you,’ he said, extending his hand. Although he was thin and wiry, his handshake was hard and tight, a pretty decent effort at intimidation. I should have expected as much from a prosecutor whose name, loosely translated, meant ‘The Fiery One.’”
In a courtroom scene the author takes a jab at the jury selection process: “Giminsky was a mistake, a result, I realized, of my trial rustiness. I had violated the cardinal rule of jury selection: never get caught without at least one challenge left. He was the last juror seated and I was sure I could get him excused for cause. Even though he admitted he thought the courts coddled criminals and personally disagreed with the Supreme Court decisions upholding the Miranda warnings, Judge Taylor refused to excuse him. When the judge asked him if he could put his personal beliefs aside and follow the law as provided by the court, Giminsky nodded his head vigorously up and down and said, ‘Absolutely.’ Give me a break, I thought. But I had used up my last peremptory challenge so there was nothing I could do about it.”
Author and Boston-area native Murphy was a law clerk at the New Hampshire Superior Court from 1981 to 1982. He drew some details for Alibi from that year of living in the Queen City and from his personal experience with a case that dealt with the murder of a restaurant manager shot by a teen. The defense was that the defendant’s best friend actually committed the murder. “I didn’t feel it was a just verdict,” says Murphy. He explains that that feeling stayed with him and became the impetus for the plot of this, his first, novel.
Murphy did not rely solely on his decades-old memories of the Granite State. He explains that to prepare for writing the book he did extensive research on New Hampshire, including its history and geography. When he is in the area he visits his friend (but not a relation) attorney Francis Murphy, a partner in the Hall Stewart law firm in downtown Manchester. Author Murphy also visits his family in Massachusetts.
Operating a solo practice, Murphy is a practicing attorney who concentrates on plaintiff’s employment law. Thursday nights between 8 and 11 p.m. is when this father of four dedicates his time to writing. “I’ve always focused on being a lawyer,” he says.
Murphy’s writing style is obviously influenced by some of his favorite legal mystery writers, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert B. Parker and Scott Turow. The sultry Yvette, Francis’ indispensable paralegal and object of sexual tension, is a direct nod at the character of Effie in Hammett’s Maltese Falcon: “With straight silky black hair that hung all the way to her waist, she was a genuine looker with a quick wit and sharp tongue that surprised anyone who made the mistake of thinking she was just another pretty package.”
Reading Turow’s books and interviewing the attorney/author for a book review inspired Murphy to try his hand at legal mystery writing. “I thought if he could do it so could I.”
Although Murphy’s book was released in May 2005, it was many years in the making. Alibi took six years to write. The manuscript was initially rejected in the mid-1990s, but with the critique and encouragement of his writer’s group, Murphy felt confident enough to try again. His agent sold the revised novel to Penguin/Putnum/Jove in 2003. “There is a lot of luck involved,” explains Murphy about being published. “But, there is also a lot of perseverance.”
Murphy admits that Dutch Francis shares many of his traits, but is quick to point out that “he certainly is not me.” He says that some of his real-life experiences outside of the legal arena were also incorporated into the book, such as rugby playing, Coke-cap collecting and the Hampton Beach Casino arcade.
Most of the characters are not based on real people, asserts Murphy. The competitive and hard-ball-playing assistant district attorney and prosecutor in the case, Peter Laflamme, is a composite character created to contrast Francis’ legal style and personality. Likewise, Larry Conway, a childhood friend who re-enters Francis’ life and convinces him to take on a criminal murder case against the civil attorney’s better judgment, is also a tool. In responding to his conflicting feelings of loyalty to Conway and sense of duty to his defendant client, Francis wrestles with moral and ethical dilemmas when the murder case he is handling just doesn’t add up. “I thought [the internal struggle] added a lot of depth to the character instead of the book’s just being a simple who-dunnit,” explains Murphy. “I’m sure my footprints are on a lot of the characters.”
With the success of Alibi, Murphy has already written a sequel Dutch Francis mystery. Also set in New Hampshire, it is centered on a sexual harassment case. He expects it to be available to the public in time for Christmas 2006.
Anita S. Becker is the managing editor of Bar News. A US Army Reservist, she recently returned to her post after being mobilized for 19 months of military service.