Saturday, February 2, 2013
Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz
George Allen is a Cape Town lawyer. He can't afford a pro bono case but when a woman he met in a bar (and whom he'd like to know better) asks him to help her sister who says she was raped in a police cell by a policeman, he agrees to investigate. George heads off to Barryville, a small town in the Klein Karoo. Backing him up is Patrick McLennan, known to the entire legal community (and his wife) as the Poison Dwarf, 'one of the most feared advocates in Cape Town' who makes up for his short stature by being a 'total and utter bastard'. In the backseat is Exhibit A, a scruffy dog Patrick claims is a witness to a crime. The many irregularities they find resolve George and Patrick to pursue the case all the way to the courtroom.
Aside: The South African legal system is modeled after the British. George is an attorney. He meets with clients and handles their legal needs like contracts, divorces, etc. If the case goes to court, the attorney briefs an advocate who is an expert in arguing cases in front of a judge.
Exhibit A is based on an actual event and dramatizes the serious problem of rape in South Africa. The country is reported to lead the world in rape cases and a 2010 study reveals that a quarter of the males in South Africa have admitted to committing a rape. And those are just the known cases. Searching South African news also shows that rape by police officers is disturbingly common. Some readers might prefer a little more distance between their fiction and reality but I think the author's decision to solidly anchor the story in a national crises makes it a stronger.
Lotz has a deft touch creating her characters who are among my favorites in crime fiction. She also finds a way to include dark, ironic, sarcastic humour to offset a grim topic. Patrick is often the focus in humorous situations being short, Scottish, and constantly eating, but his excellence as an advocate is never questioned. Likewise, George, a little down at the heels, practice eking along, and whose love life is a shambles after breaking up with fellow attorney, Val (aka The Witch), has wry observations about himself but still comes across as a lawyer I would engage. Val is George's ex domestic and law partner. She doesn't get as much page time but when she does, it is a treat. She is the target of some of Patrick's best caustic comments. If the author asked me what I wold like to see next in this series, I would ask for a story from before Val and George broke up.
In addition to a good story and characters, the author gives you a good sense of place. You know you are in South Africa. I enjoyed the way she described Barryville in the Klein (Little) Karoo. She lets you feel that you are in one of those 'tiny South African towns that stuck in a time warp and is dripping with small-town prejudice and incipient racist values'. If you enjoy books set in a different country that gives you a feeling for the location then I predict you will enjoy Exhibit A.
Sarah has a second book featuring these characters, Tooth and Nailed. Both are available in Kindle editions here: Exhibit A, Tooth and Nailed. Buy both and maybe she will be encouraged to write a third.