The First Amendment is a mighty shield, protecting all sorts of offensive speech. No matter how disgusting I might find the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church, in 2011, the Supreme Court found a First Amendment protection in its favor allowing the church to spew its hateful ideology in public. In Snyder v. Phelps (yes, Fred Phelps, the late leader of the Westboro cult), the Court held that a speaker on a public sidewalk, speaking about a public issue, cannot be held liable for the tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is ‘outrageous.’ But the Snyder Court also distinguished between hateful speech directed to issues of public importance, like homosexuality and abortion, and speech of a personal nature, like insults and lies, directed to a private person.
Hubert Crouch’s new book, The Word (2015), practically yanks the Westboro headlines from today’s paper. In his sophomore novel, the second installment of the Jace Forman series, Crouch brings together three main characters from his first book (Cries For No One (2013)) for a wild ride through a world where religious zealots hide behind the First Amendment to cover their virulent hate speech, high-powered attorneys hire thugs to intimidate magazine reporters from exposing their misdeeds, and an entire family – the McGuffin, if you will, for the story -– is killed off, one-by-one, until only their lawyer is left standing. Hey, The Word is set in Texas, after all!
Ezekiel Shaw is a Fred Phelps-like messiah, preaching the inerrancy of the Bible to his flock at the Brimstone Bible Church, and the eternal damnation of those who disagree with him. When Shaw and his congregants picket the funeral of a fallen American warrior – a young West Point graduate who may also be a lesbian! – and spew their hateful venom, the soldier’s parents hire Jace Forman, noted Fort Worth-based trial lawyer (and protagonist of Crouch’s first book), to sue Shaw and his church.
Of course, opposing counsel in courtroom dramas are expected to have some interpersonal back story and here, there’s no love lost between Jace and his able opponent, a former law partner Jace slighted by not inviting him to join Jace’s new firm.
The Brimstone Bible Church defends the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, relying on the Snyder decision. To win the case, Jace has to prove that Shaw and the church personally attacked the family. The judge has made it clear she’ll dismiss the suit otherwise.
Soon, the mother’s anguish leads her to take her own life (the second of three deaths for this poor family) and the father plots his own extrajudicial retribution against Shaw. As the trial date approaches, the father packs up his assault rifle and sets out for revenge, taking a sniper’s vantage point above the funeral Shaw and his congregation are picketing that day. A violent death ensues.
Faced with the prospect of dismissal, Jace learns that one of Shaw’s flock, a seventeen-year-old girl, has fled the group. She holds the key to proving the hateful speech was in fact personal to the family. Shaw, though, sends the young girl’s brainwashed mother to ‘ensure’ her daughter doesn’t testify against the church. The race is on for Jace to persuade the girl that Shaw can no longer sexually abuse her and that she must testify against him and her former congregation. Another violent death ensues.
While the main story bobs along, an independent storyline weaves in and out, tracking the efforts of Fort Worth attorney Cal Connors and his law partner daughter to silence a magazine reporter who has the goods on his firm’s legal and ethical improprieties. In the good old days, Cal Connors was at the top of the heap of Texas Personal Injury attorneys – until tort reform brought down the kibosh on big-dollar judgments in the State. So Cal does what any of self-respecting PI attorney must do to keep his firm afloat: he conspires with the claims adjuster handling the defense of one of Cal’s mass tort cases to settle all claims for a princely and unsupportable sum, agreeing to kick back several million bucks to the adjuster.
Meanwhile, as the magazine reporter – who has reason to fear for her life, given that Cal’s goons have made their presence known – homes in on corroborating proof of Cal’s illegal and unethical conduct, Cal and his daughter put their plan in motion to blackmail the reporter with sexually explicit photos of her (obtained in a most disgusting way).
Crouch’s prose is straightforward with little pretension (or intention) to literary fiction, and he largely lets the dialogue drive the action. The legalese is kept to a minimum, but not at the expense of explaining the legal maneuverings and procedural activity. The main characters have depth and dimension, which Crouch shows through various interpersonal relationships, including with some peripheral characters that do not otherwise figure in the storylines.
Crouch deftly interlaces the two storylines which, interestingly though, don’t tie together. There’s only a tangential connection between the main plot involving the Brimstone Bible Church, and the secondary story concerning the magazine reporter: the reporter’s editor hires the same investigator that Jace Forman uses to investigate the church. Oh, and also when the noose begins to tighten around Cal and his daughter, Cal hires Jace to represent him. Both plotlines though stand on their own and zoom towards mutually satisfying conclusions, with each short chapter efficiently building on the previous.
We love our courtroom dramas and those written by lawyers have a proud tradition in American letters, from the works of Erle Stanley Gardner (the Perry Mason series) and Louis Auchincloss through John Grisham and Scott Turow. Add Hubert Crouch to this venerable list.
Summer is almost upon us. When you’re considering your vacay reading list, remember this topical courtroom drama to help you while away your beach time – but you’d better bring some other books too, because you’ll finish The Word before you know it.