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Bar News - December 21, 2016

Book Review: Action-Packed Mystery Novel Brings You Back to the ’80s


The Tortoise Shell Game
By V. Frank Asaro
Bettie Youngs Books, 2015
Paperback, 372 pages

It makes sense that an admiralty lawyer would write a mystery about the sinking of a tuna boat. Set in 1980s San Diego, California, the mystery revolves around the tuna boat, a marvel of modern technology and a thing of wonder to its owner and builder.

But the boat is already drowning in a sea of debt when somebody blows a hole in its hull off the coast of Central America and the crew goes missing. The owner’s unfortunate ties to a crooked banker don’t look good. Worse still, the owner’s high school buddy is also his lawyer, and his lawyer’s abandoned manuscript of the sinking of a tuna boat for the insurance proceeds looks close enough to what really happened that it’s his lawyer who ends up in jail.

The plot moves along very briskly. Long lost high school lovers, a vindictive district attorney, and an undiscovered daughter who helps the lawyer publish a book on resolving conflicts from his jailhouse cell give the reader a lot to juggle. But having the protagonist publish a book on conflict resolution makes sense, too, because the lawyer-author has himself previously published works on conflict resolution. As the author has said, “The book is really about finding the sweet spot between competing and cooperation as a fresh way to avoid polarization and to solve problems.”

But here the author gets there by doing just the opposite, energetically creating one conflict after another. Throw in a gold-digging fiancé, a Central American dictator, and an esteemed guerilla fighting the dictator who grew up with the protagonist, and there’s plenty to enliven the action. As one reviewer put it, Frank Asaro “has created a thriller with more twists and turns than a complex carnival ride.”

Yet it works. The characters Asaro draws are engaging. You get you hooked on the action and worried about whether the good guys will make it through and the bad guys will get their comeupppance. True, this mystery like many others requires a suspension of disbelief at times. And some of the courtroom maneuvering suggests to me, at least, that admiralty law is different from New Hampshire law.

But that makes sense, too, because the courts are all in California, and everyone knows California law is different. And it’s the 1980s. It’s a bit unsettling, to me at least, to realize now and again how much technology has changed the practice of law since the 1980s. Not that any lawyer I know wants to go back to researching cases in decennial digests and poring over indexes with squibs written in small print. But there is a palpable difference that one forgets on a day-to-day basis, and that’s part of the drama here.

This author is probably not going to be shouldering aside more established mystery writers in the near future. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a good read. It’s a good, brisk and bracing book for the beach, an airplane flight, or a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Jim Allmendinger

Jim Allmendinger has practiced labor and employment law since 1977, mostly representing unions and employees. He currently works out of the Law Offices of James F. Allmendinger in Durham, NH.

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