Book Review: Judgment by Joseph Finder
By Larry ClowJanuary 28, 2019
Joseph Finder’s Judgment is a new thriller about a female judge and the one personal misstep that could lead to her–and her family’s–downfall.
Juliana Brody, a Massachusetts Superior Court judge and the protagonist of Joseph Finder’s latest thriller, Judgment, is as straight-laced a hero as you can find in the genre. She meticulously obeys the speed limit, never allows herself more than one drink if she’s at a bar, and keeps herself in check at all times. And so it’s a joy to watch her stumble down a path of moral compromises, ethical shortcuts, and some minor corruption as Finder puts her through absolute hell.
Judge Brody’s problems begin with a moment of weakness. She meets a charming man at a legal conference, has a second drink, and soon goes back to his hotel room. It’s so unlike her—along with being rule-bound, she’s normally intensely loyal to her husband and family—that, when the encounter ends and Juliana goes back to her normal life, she resolves to forget it ever happened.
But she can’t—during a routine hearing for a sexual harassment case involving Wheelz, a ride-share start-up, the defense team adds a new lawyer to its line-up: Juliana’s erstwhile one-night-stand. When she confronts him later, things get worse: he taped their encounter and, unless she rules in favor of Wheelz, he’ll release the tape and destroy her career and marriage.
Of course, Juliana’s problems multiply from there. As she soon discovers, her blackmailer is a pawn in a much larger scheme, one that’s more deadly than she initially believes. But Juliana is tougher than she seems, and as Finder throws new obstacles her way in each chapter, she rises to meet the challenges.
Finder’s skill in creating characters shines in Judgment. Juliana is a rare thriller protagonist—likeable and flawed, capable but not outrageously hyper-competent. As the scope of her problem becomes clearer, Juliana tentatively tests the waters of rule-breaking. She doesn’t have a plan or a deep network of allies whom she can trust. She’s got her mentor—a straight-talking former judge with some political clout—and a no-nonsense private eye who must quickly school her in the rules of the game:
“I wonder. Are you being followed?”
“Followed? How would I know?”
“You might not.” He was quiet for a long while. Then he said, “Well, you might start to notice the same person in different locations. Or cars that seem to be lurking in your neighborhood.”
“If they’re any good, I suspect I wouldn’t see any trace of them, right?”
“Unless they want you to know they’re there.”
Judgment is briskly-paced, a punchy, fun book. Juliana makes mistake after mistake, recovers, does a few things right, makes more mistakes—and ultimately triumphs. Savvy readers might groan at Juliana’s rookie moves but will cheer when she outsmarts the bad guys. She’s an engaging protagonist, maybe one of Finder’s best.
The slow reveal of Judgment’s central mystery—why a standard sexual harassment lawsuit becomes the center of a complex and deadly blackmail scheme—is also handled well. Finder teases the reveal, and, in doing so, gives a strong sense of Juliana’s professional and personal limitations. Though she may be a big fish in the small pond of Massachusetts’ legal community, her ability to dig up information without attracting the attention of her tormentors—and state officials—is limited. By making his protagonist a judge, Finder subverts our usual expectations of a thriller’s hero.
She heard herself. Information is power. Who had she become, what kind of person? Here she was, planning to hire someone to break the law for her. Which meant, of course, that she was breaking the law. She was doing something that she’d sent people away for doing.
The supporting characters are also well-drawn. Juliana’s mentor, Martha Connolly, is a wise sidekick who brightens any scene she’s in. Juliana’s family, meanwhile, hold their own—with so much skullduggery going on, it would be easy for the bits of family drama that Finder seeds throughout the book to feel unnecessary. But they aren’t, and they manage to both add to Juliana’s character and help drive the plot forward.
New England readers will also enjoy the Boston setting—Finder lives in the city, and he sends Juliana along familiar roadways, through the city’s suburbs, and, eventually, out to Cape Cod for the book’s satisfying finale. Along with constructing a complex plot, Finder is also a master at using small, telling details to cement setting and character. An early Saturday morning meeting between federal agents and Juliana involves a lot of Dunkin Donuts coffee, naturally, and Juliana’s trips to and from locations both legitimate and seedy always take into account the region’s notoriously congested traffic.
Judgment is an absolute blast. It is, in the best sense, a textbook thriller—exactly the sort of book you want when you’re looking for a cracking plot and a memorable protagonist. If Judgment is any indication, 2019 will be a great year for the genre.