Tropical Doubt, by David Myles Robinson

Author David Myles Robinson can write a legal mystery in which the plot is intriguing, the writing is excellent, and the law is accurately depicted. This is quite a triumvirate, which few authors do well. Courtroom scenes are inherently dramatic. Making a deposition scene good reading without making it a mockery of how real law works is a neat trick, so kudos to Mr. Robinson on pulling off. For lawyers like me, this is a rare bit of legal fiction where you won’t be constantly cringing due to the inaccurate depictions of the legal issues.

This is the third book in Mr. Robinson’s series starring criminal defense lawyer Pancho McMartin, who is described as “the best trial lawyer in Hawaii.” In this case, Pancho is a little down on his luck, he’s on a losing streak, and the finances of his law practice are shaky. So, the perfect time to try your luck at a medical malpractice suit, eh? Well, not so much, except that when Pancho’s dear friend, Manny’s wife is left in a coma following a botched surgery, Manny talks Pancho into taking on the civil case against the doctors and the hospital. This is well outside of Pancho’s expertise, but he is able to enlist the assistance of the voluptuous former medical examiner, Padma, who agrees to help with the case, and who is eager to jump into bed with Pancho – both figuratively and literally. The romance here takes up big chung of the story, and is engaging, if just a side story.

The malpractice suit, of course, is not the real plot, either. Soon after the civil suit begins, the chief surgeon is found dead. Padma helpfully (?) points out that the doctor’s symptoms remind her of a case she once had where the cause of death turned out to be poisoning via an insecticide. Sure enough, when the police check it out, they find that the doctor was poisoned. They find a can in his garage containing the insecticide – with Manny’s fingerprints. Manny, it turns out, had stormed into the doctor’s office and threatened to “make him pay.” Well, the police have a clear case – Manny had the motive, and his fingerprints are on the de facto murder “weapon.”  Manny is charged with murder, and of course Pancho agrees to take on his criminal case, along with still litigating the malpractice case.

The criminal case against Manny has a bunch of holes, which the police never bother trying to fill. The author avoids a direct parallel to the OJ Simpson trial, but this was clearly a “rush to judgment” where any possible alternative suspects were never pursued because the police were convinced that they had their killer. So, Pancho litigates the malpractice case and defends the murder case simultaneously, while his law practice goes deeper into debt under the weight of expert witness fees and other costs associated with both cases, and the absence of many other paying clients.

The climactic trial scene in the murder case is pretty much stock footage. A key bit of evidence surfaces in the middle of the trial (because Padma suddenly realizes something she should have thought of months earlier), a key witness makes an admission on cross-examination, Pancho is brilliant. But, is it enough to get a not guilty verdict? No spoilers here about that, nor about the outcome of the malpractice suit. Suffice to say that it’s interesting and well-written. It also avoids any blatantly incorrect law, procedure, or courtroom antics.

The legal cases, by their nature, move slowly. To fill in, the author provides a lot of filler, including luscious descriptions of Hawaii, peppered with local dialect words, several beach/surfing scenes, and the arrival of Pancho’s parents, who come to be there for his trial. There’s a lot of banter between the characters, the love story between Pancho and Padma, and many descriptions of the weather. This extraneous material leaves the main story feeling like less than half the book, which is not long to start with. The saving grace is that it’s all so well-written that you don’t really mind, although at times you want to get on with the main story.

There are a few twists thrown in at the end, and this is not a pat finish with all the ribbons tied up in neat bows. I like the gritty reality and ambiguity of the conclusion.

The book is exceptionally well-edited and a pleasure to read. Mr. Robinson is an accomplished writer and knows his law. The characters are complex and have solid backstories and personalities. I would have liked to see a few of the key trial witnesses fleshed out a bit more earlier in the book, and there were a few late-stage facts that would have been nice to get sooner to give the reader a better chance at figuring out the mystery, but those are small nits in what is a very enjoyable book.

I’m certainly going to go back and check out the first two books in this series, and when book #4 is published, I’ll be at the front of the pre-order line.

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