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Book Review: “Reckless Disregard,” by Robert Rotstein

recklessdisregard 1Abduction!, the world’s hottest online game from the world’s hottest online game developer, the anonymous shadow figure known to the world only as Poniard (think, an online Banksy), accuses real-life media mogul, William Bishop, known to the world as William the Conqueror (think, Rupert Murdoch) of the abduction and murder of the well-known film starlet Felicity McGrath some years before. What’s a tycoon to do but sue Poniard for libel and defamation? As we all know, though, truth is an absolute defense to libel.

That’s the set-up for Robert Rotstein’s latest legal thriller, Reckless Disregard, (Seventh Street Books, 2014) and what a fun ride this book is. Our hero is Parker Stern, a burned-out trial lawyer with a secret past. Once at the top of the Los Angeles legal heap, Parker has lost his love for the law and is terrified of the courtroom. Now working from a sparsely furnished room the mediation service provides, he’s spending the prime of his legal career as a two-bit mediator, handling the legal dross that none of the other mediators wants, the slip-and-falls, evictions, Worker’s Comp claims. Out of nowhere he gets a chat message from Poniard, asking him for representation in the libel suit. Poniard will not be denied and offers to pay him any fee for the best legal talent available. And we’re off!

Soon, Parker is gearing up to undertake the representation. As word spreads that he’s in this high-profile case, various volunteers come forward to help out, including the retired private investigator from his old days at the firm, and a comely young assistant from the mediation service who offers to serve as his Girl Friday. On the other side of the case is Louis Frantz, one of the country’s top trial lawyers, a bitter blow-hard bully who Parker bested in a suit a few years before. Turns out that Frantz’s new associate – Lovely Diamond, a former porn star turned lawyer (tip of the hat to the Office of Admission of the State Bar of California!) – is Parker’s ex-girlfriend. Small world.

Told mainly in Parker’s first person voice, the plot ratchets up when his investigator finds evidence that William the Conqueror not only knew Felicity McGrath, but that she may have also carried his love child. If Parker can prove this link between William and Felicity, he’ll bolster Poniard’s defense that he lacked “reckless disregard” of the truth or falsity of the murder allegations; William the Conqueror is a public figure, though, and in order to prevail in the case he must prove the higher legal standard, that Poniard defamed him in reckless disregard of the truth of the accusation. An intermittent third-person narrative features Lovely Diamond’s Asperger’s teenager, Brighton, who allows the reader into the world of obsessive gamers, and serves to unravel some key plot points to move the story along.

Days before Parker’s investigator is brutally knifed to death, the gruesome details of the yet-to-happen murder are revealed online, in the Abduction! game. Poniard accuses William the Conqueror of hacking the game in order to diver suspicion to Poniard. But who is this mysterious Poniard, the game master who won’t reveal his identity even to his attorney? Will Parker’s own secret past keep him from taking the steps required to prevail at trial?

This is Robert Rotstein’s second novel (his debut, Corrupt Practices, also features the character Parker Stern). Certainly Rotstein’s experience as a long-practicing L.A. entertainment attorney provides much grist for his story mill. But add into the mix that special gift of all successful trial attorneys to persuasively tell a compelling story, and you have the recipe for a finely-tuned thrill ride of intrigue and suspense through the overlapping worlds of the law, celebrity, wealth, power and the evolving phenomenon of internet anonymity. Like any effective legal thriller, Rotstein carries us effortlessly through the legal process, from Parker’s retention on the case, through the discovery phase (where Poniard appears for his deposition by video, his face digitally animated as King Richard the Third of England), the change of the trial judge mid-stream (in his initial filings, Parker elected a bench trial for strategic reasons, and the new judge despises him because he kicked her butt in a big case years before she came on the bench), and through the trial of the case, with plenty of unexpected flips and flops along the way.

Rotstein presents his tale with rich detail, credible character development and in plain English, friendly to attorney- and lay-reader alike. With impressive skill and finesse, Rotstein ties up the intersecting plot lines in delicious fashion on the book’s final pages, reminding us yet again that in fiction – as in life – things aren’t always as they seem. Parker is a credible, sympathetic hero and with this recurring figure, Rotstein will only deepen the character’s nuances over the course of the series.

This one was a pleasure and I didn’t see the final resolution coming. I can’t wait for the next Parker Stern mystery.

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