Personal Justice is book 5 in the “Justice” series of legal mysteries starring hero lawyer Marc Kadella. If you enjoyed the earlier books in this series, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Dennis Carstens is an excellent storyteller. His books include some complex plots and many interesting characters. Any one of them is a good, entertaining read. But as you read more of the series, the books fall into a bit of a rut. The first half of each book is the setup of the character who will be Marc’s client for the big trial. Carstens tells the reader everything about what “really happened.” There is, therefore, little mystery, except for how Marc can win the case. There are often hidden facts withheld from the reader that come out later.
Then, the second half of the book is the trial, where all the facts are restated through witness testimony and the reader gets to live through the trial, which can be exciting the first time through, but gets a little boring after a few repetitions. There are inevitable surprise witnesses and brilliant legal maneuvering by Marc, and then the suspense of waiting for the verdict. Then, after the trial, there is the twist or surprise or reveal of something that had been withheld from the reader, or where the reader was deceived or misled, so that things are not exactly as they seemed all along.
Mr. Carstens presents a world where prosecutors, cops, and judges are corrupt and dishonest and the system is stacked against criminal defendants (even though most of his defendants are really guilty of something), and where the media – particularly television news media, but also the print media – are fools or corrupt or simply sensationalistic and hungry for scoops and attention at the complete expense of facts and truth. The only true defender of truth and principle is Marc Kadella, the hero lawyer, although even he engages in ethical violations, withholds information from his own clients, and in other ways is not a bastion of moral character.
The author plays fast and loose with legal reality to suit the story, which can be maddening to lawyers (like me), but probably don’t bother non-attorney readers. (Example: Marc asks one of his lawyer colleagues about how to handle mandatory mediation for a civil wrongful death suit that arises against Marc’s client. The other lawyer, Connie, replies that they’ll deal with that after the summary judgment motion. Except that in the real world mandatory mediation happens at the beginning of the case, before any litigation such as a summary judgment motion. There’s no particular reason why this misstatement of how mediation works is even mentioned as it’s not really relevant to the story, but Carstens throws it in – and gets it wrong. In the same civil suit, the depositions of the defendant and the key witness for the plaintiff are scheduled for the same day, with the defendant’s deposition expected to be finished up within a few hours in the morning. That would never happen, and the plaintiff’s deposition of the defendant in such a case would always take a full day if not more.) There are many such legal inaccuracies, some large and some small, but most are unnecessary, which is part of the frustration.
Personal Justice follows the well-worn pattern. Here, Marc is representing an old high school classmate Marc had a crush on years ago, who now is accused of murdering her older, wealthy husband, who changed his will shortly before his death, leaving everything to Mackenzie and cutting out his no-good lazy children. This is the fourth husband to meet a similar fate at Mackenzie’s hands (although the police only find out about one of the others). Mr. Carstens conveniently has Marc taking a break from his longer-term relationship with a local judge, who had been a prominent character in the earlier books, so that he can have a fling with his new client, whom the media calls the “black widow.” The politically-motivated prosecutor, spurred on by cries from the media, indicts Mackenzie despite no real evidence. Marc and his usual cadre of side characters must investigate and defend Mackenzie. The story is compelling and it’s a mostly well-written text, peppered with an annoying number of editing errors and a profound overuse of ellipses as punctuation. The biggest flaw, though, is that the story arc is so similar to Carstens’ other books that it’s like you’re re-reading an old favorite that you don’t completely remember, and although you don’t recall the exact ending, the outcome is never really in doubt. It’s a comfortable read for fans of Marc Kadella and his companions, but if you were waiting for the series to get better – or even different – it isn’t.