Green-Eyed Lady by Chuck Greaves is the second legal mystery featuring wise-cracking L.A. attorney Jack MacTaggart (available June 25, 2013).
Back in 1987, over a year before the 1988 presidential election, front-runner Gary Hart dared the reporters to follow him after reports surfaced that he was having an extra-marital affair. They did and he was outed, causing him to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination. That was certainly damaging to Mr. Hart, who didn’t get a chance to have his name on a presidential ballot. Now, image if you were running for a Senate seat in California, you were the former mayor of Los Angeles, and you were up by ten in the polls with less than a month to go. You’d be doing pretty good, huh? That’s how author Chuck Greaves sets up the sixty-something Warren Burkett in Green-Eyed Lady's opening prologue. The senior citizen was close to sailing to an election victory, until he sees a young woman with green eyes on a dark road. Being the gentleman he is, he stops and renders aid, avoiding a call to the authorities in favor of a quick drive to Mrs. Bridget Rose’s house. Ah, but her purse was stolen, and he gallantly helped her by breaking a window and letting in the bedraggled young woman. They gaze at a painting by Morisot above the mantle and then Rose starts to undress the candidate and leads him to the bedroom. When he wakes up, his clothes are gone, she’s gone, and, most importantly, so is the painting. Oh, and the police are there.
What do you think the lead in the polls is going to do? Exactly.
To counteract this growing kerfuffle, Burkett hires Jack MacTaggart, an L.A. attorney with oodles of witty comebacks. He has his own law firm in Pasadena that he shares with fellow partner Marta “Mayday” Suarez. Now, I’ll admit that it took me a little bit before I stopped envisioning Grace Jones (the James Bond villain/girl from A View to a Kill), but perhaps that’s just me. Of the two partners, Mayday’s the nuts-and-bolts one, always tapping away at a computer, while MacTaggart's the rapid-fire one, trying to stay one step ahead of the pack. It makes for some fun, breezy reading.
Naturally, MacTaggart is a little flummoxed as to why Burkett hired him. “Why me,” he asks. “Hell,” Burkett replies, “I know more lawyers than O.J. Simpson. But Russ Dinsmoor told me once that if he were ever in trouble, you’re the guy he’d hire, and that’s all I needed to know.” Good enough for Burkett, good enough for us readers. Both men have a downright funny streak in them and comical lines:
Burkett: “You ever drink sake?”
MacTaggart: “Not on purpose.”
Burkett: “It’s like warm cat piss.” He shook his head sadly. “The things you put up with in a campaign, you don’t want to know.”
A large reason this book is so much fun is the narrator. After the third-person prologue, MacTaggart tears into the traditional first-person narration. He is charming and snappy, always seeming to have only half his attention on the case and the other half looking towards Officer Regan Fife (catch the last name?), a few years his junior. He uses her and her official police connections when the District Attorney, Tom “Slew” Slewzyski, decides to try the case himself and block MacTaggart’s efforts at discovery. The two lawyers have a tete-a-tete going that implies previous fights. “You know what I’m thinking, Mac?” Slew continued. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll try this case myself.” “Great,” MacTaggart replies, “the odds of acquittal just doubled.” Then there's Larry Archer, Burkett’s opponent in the election who's a close pal of “Slew,” so you know what MacTaggart’s up against.
Much of the focus of the case involves the painting. In another funny bit, MacTaggart and Mayday pose as insurance investigators trying to track down the list of people who knew the painting was in the house from which it was snatched and the amount of insurance bought. They get their info, but then the real insurance agents start calling. MacTaggart does a lot of things we wish we could do: talk on the phone through a rolled-up paper to mimic going through a tunnel or holding the phone out the window to simulate wind noise. It was pretty darn funny. As was the way in which MacTaggart received one message: via Etch-a-Sketch.
Author Greaves puts a lot of crumbs on the trail for MacTaggart and us readers to find. The pace is brisk, the protagonists likeable and fun to be around. Most of the action takes place in the twenty days before the election, so Greaves gives us a countdown like Election Day minus fourteen to start many of the chapters. I liked the ticking time bomb aspect of the structure.
Now comes the part I’m always reticent to do: comparisons. In this day and age, you can just compare one thing to another and that’ll suffice for a review. But I can’t deny that certain things started filtering into my head as I read this book. Naturally, all mystery-story lawyers live in Perry Mason’s shadow. And, truth be told, many casual readers will be more familiar with the TV incarnation, as personified by Raymond Burr. That is a great version, but MacTaggart and his machinations hearken back to the early versions of Mason from Erle Stanley Gardner's books, back when he was more active in doing the legwork. When I wasn’t thinking of Mason, I was channeling the unfortunately-cancelled CBS show The Defenders from a couple of years ago. I enjoyed that show quite a bit and kept seeing actor Jerry O’Connell as MacTaggart, not just for the zippy dialogue, but the snazzy clothes and house.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book and will pay it the ultimate compliment: I’m going back and reading Greaves’s first novel with MacTaggart, Hush Money.
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Scott D. Parker is a professional writer and a regular columnist for Do Some Damage.