By Phil Mann

Steve Doyle’s HEARTLESS begins at a relentless pace and does not let up, quite literally, until the last page. In the first three pages, a judge is brutally murdered and his heart removed. Attorney Matt Carter, who has appeared before the judge, sees no other connection between himself and the dead judge. He does have two ongoing cases, one a messy divorce and custody battle, and the other a criminal defense case. In the former, he represents a woman whose soon-to-be-former husband is brainwashing and quite possibly abusing their children while hiding behind a sanctimonious façade of religious fervor. In the latter, Carter has a strange client who is accused of breaking into a veterinary hospital.

There seems to be a prevalent misconception that criminal defense is as dangerous as legal work gets for attorneys. After all, the defense attorney is usually representing criminals, or so goes the belief. Attorneys know, however, that the most dangerous work is in family law, especially in divorce and custody cases. Emotions are more volatile in that field than in any other, and threats and violence are, sadly, not uncommon.

Doyle clearly recognizes this fact, and HEARTLESS superbly captures the strained atmosphere of a hotly contested custody battle. At the same time, the criminal case marches along rather benignly. While Carter has to deal with an out-of-control husband in the divorce case, he has only the rational prosecutor on the other side of the criminal case. Doyle makes excellent use of these two cases to portray some of the more fascinating aspects of legal work, from the strategy associated with criminal defense to the difficulties of dealing with a client whose husband seems to represent a serious threat to Carter’s client, Carter himself, and the client’s children. Unlike many legal thrillers, HEARTLESS clearly demonstrates the author’s intimate knowledge of the law and the system, all without ever once seeming pedantic.

Moreover, this, Doyle’s first novel, is generally very well written, and I found myself enjoying the novel immensely. Doyle keeps things moving quickly, and my interest never flagged. Even when the serial killings take a back seat, the legal maneuvers and human interest sustain the novel easily. I am tempted to compare Doyle’s novel to a John Grisham novel, but I think that doing so does a disservice to Doyle if the comparison is unqualified. Unlike Grisham’s THE FIRM, THE PELICAN BRIEF, or THE BRETHREN, Doyle’s HEARTLESS has the unmistakable ring of truth. Granted, probably no divorced person has killed a judge and removed the heart, but there have been attacks on and even murders of attorneys who handle divorces. Unlike Grisham’s THE CHAMBER, probably the most realistic Grisham novel, or THE STREET LAWYER, HEARTLESS has a point without ever seeming tendentious. The point, at least to me, is that family law can be brutal and dehumanizing for all involved. This point lends a moral ambiguity that only strengthens the novel.

HEARTLESS has flaws, of course. The killer’s identity may be a bit too transparent to the reader even when it’s not so to the characters, and red flags that should raise questioning eyebrows are either ignored or not explained away. But Doyle’s writing and his flair for storytelling more than overcome for these flaws, and HEARTLESS is highly recommended reading. A strong word of caution is in order, though: Do not read the plot summary on the back of the book, for it gives away far too much of the plot.