By Phil Mann
Despite television and film representations of lawyers' lives as thrilling ones filled with intense cross-examinations, surprise confessions on the stand, and interoffice romances, the young associate's life in a law firm is filled with tedious research, endless motions to write, and often an obsession with partnership. For Mark McCoy, the narrator of MAHOGANY ROW, the past eight years have been more like the reality than the cinematic version. He now faces the partners' decision that will determine whether he joins the ranks on Mahogany Row, the luxurious wing that houses the partners' offices, or find himself out of a job with nary a thank-you for his tenure at Ashley, Stepford & Simpson. As it turns out, partnership becomes a vague afterthought when the Simpson of the firm's name turns up dead in McCoy's office with McCoy's blood on him and an incriminating letter on the desk.
What follows is an adrenaline-filled, don't-stop-for-breath race through the streets, buildings, and boroughs of New York City. Dogged by a police detective with more than a passing resemblance to Peter Falk's Columbo, McCoy seeks to unveil the clues that will exonerate him and save him from the forces that seem bent on killing anyone who might help him.
Though nominally a "legal thriller," as The Fiction Works identifies the book, MAHOGANY ROW owes more to the noir tradition of detective fiction. There are no courtroom confrontations, but author Wayne J. Keeley does demonstrate his knowledge of the law. In many ways, this eschewing of the typical legal-thriller setting adds to the novel's feel. McCoy does not deliver a dramatic and moving peroration to a jury but instead finds clues in the bowels of the firm's files. He does not extract a dying declaration or offer a brilliant and timely hearsay objection -- and of course he cannot since dodging both the people out to kill him and the detective determined to arrest him while trying to solve the mystery fills his time very nicely. And therein lies the core of this book.
MAHOGANY ROW's cast of characters is bleak in the noir tradition. Truth and justice seem to matter little to people hiding their dark secrets, pursuing their own agendas, or merely doing their jobs, and McCoy, whose future depends on the truth, must ferret out the truth. The noir elements are enjoyable, but they are not fully executed. The characters are not fully realized and tend to rely on archetypes -- the savvy stripper and the unwavering detective, for example. Moreover, McCoy's survival seems unlikely given what he goes through. Keeley's writing also seems strained at times, as, for example, when he refers to Simpson as a "corpse a la mode."
At the same time, though, MAHOGANY ROW boasts an accomplished mystery. Keeley may not provide all the clues in the scrupulous manner of John Dickson Carr, but he comes darn close. Certainly, enough clues are there so that a determined reader can make a reasonable guess at the identity of Simpson's killer. Keeley seems to have taken great care to put the clues fairly before the reader, and he does so so adeptly that the reader who has finished the book may be surprised at just how early the first clue appears. For readers who cherish the puzzles and author-versus-reader duel of mysteries, MAHOGANY ROW delivers solidly so that the pieces all fit together when the final revelation occurs without any sense that the ending is contrived.
MAHOGANY ROW is a fast read, and the combination of the nearly nonstop action and Keeley's generally brisk writing is sufficient to make the ride an enjoyable one and allow the reader to suspend just enough disbelief to turn the next page -- and the one after it. While not great literature by a long shot, MAHOGANY ROW is certainly fun to read and an exceedingly well constructed mystery.