Book Review: Cheater’s Game by Paul Levine
By Janet WebbApril 8, 2020
It’s personal in the thirteenth Jake Lassiter thriller: Miami-based lawyer Jake defends his nephew Kip, who is “charged with multiple federal crimes.” Kip has been working for millionaire Max Ringle, who concocted a “shady scheme to help rich, entitled kids gain admission to elite universities.” When the jig is up, Ringle “cops a plea” and throws his young associate under the bus. The college admission scandal has been front-page news in the United States: Cheater’s Game gets into the nitty-gritty of what is, at heart, a sophisticated con that plays on the hopes and dreams of parents for their children. We meet the parents, the students who were “helped” gain admission to competitive colleges, as well as college admissions officers.
Complicating the situation for Jake is the brain damage (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) he sustained when he played football. “C.T.E. is to former football players what black lung is to coal mining: the grim reaper cutting a swath through our fraternity.” It was too difficult to continue as a defense attorney, so Jake switched sides to work for the State of Florida. Until he quits his job to defend Kip.
Dr. Melissa Gold, a famed neurologist and Lassiter’s fiancée, supervises experimental treatments intended to keep the ailing lawyer strong enough for a grueling trial.
The three main characters have a complicated history. Why is the relationship between Kip and Jake so troubled? It was not always so. They haven’t been spending a lot of time together, but Jake certainly didn’t expect Kip’s Tesla to be run off the road, landing him in the hospital. Jake lays into Kip with a litany of questions about his recent activities, the money in his wallet, where the accident occurred, but Kip answers none of them truthfully. Kip says he was in the Florida Glades to collect the money his friend Jimmy owed him for tutoring. Jimmy’s name doesn’t set off any pings for Jake, but Kip’s replies do.
“How much did he owe you?”
Silence. I could have run the 40-yard dash while he decided what to say, and I was never fast. Surely he knew the amount, so why the delay?
“Eight hundred bucks,” he said, finally.
“I guess that explains the $987 in your wallet.”
Another pause. “I guess.”
Kip might be able to get a perfect score on the SAT, but he was a real dunce at prevarication. Still, that was preferable to his being a practiced liar, sharpening his skills daily, like D’Artagnan with his rapier.
“Why didn’t Jimmy send you a check?” I asked. “Or . . . what’s that system you use?”
“PayPal.” He shrugged. “Jimmy likes cash.”
“So do a lot of my clients. I send them birthday cards every year. Raiford, Avon Park, Dade Correctional.”
“Chill, Jake. This isn’t illegal.”
Kip explains his work at Quest Educational Development (Q.E.D.): “Q.E.D. helps wealthy families get their kids into elite universities.” He runs down a list of their services; “Résumé and essay enhancements, SAT and ACT prep, even psychologists to help with test anxiety.” Jake’s not buying it and his riposte has a ring of Robert Parker’s Spenser: “Sounds like hired hands putting a spit shine on the shoddy work of rich dullards.”
Dr. Melissa Gold, Jake’s fiancée, is insightful and wicked smart, but she runs up against Jake’s wall of resistance—he wants to save her from what she most desires, a life with him. That’s why he refuses to marry her, not wanting her either to be a young widow or tend to him as he face-plants into a bowl of oatmeal. Melissa pushes back hard.
“Why? Do you think there are any guarantees? Do you think young, healthy people don’t face obstacles? And it’s my choice whether I take on the risks of your future health.”
Uncle! Jake capitulates: “And I just said ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’”
Jake is so attractive and articulate that one might be forgiven for thinking that his neurological difficulties are overblown. Not so. A conversation with Judge Gridley paints his day-to-day life in bas relief. The judge asks Jake how he’s feeling and then, reluctantly, explains why.
He paused a moment and said, “This morning, when you came into chambers, we both said howdy, and you asked, ‘How’s Martha?’ You remember?”
“Sure. And you said she was ‘fine and dandy.’ Your exact words.”
“Well, Jake. I didn’t know what to say. Martha passed almost three years ago.”
I stood frozen. “Oh, jeez, Judge. I’m sorry. That was thoughtless of me.”
“No, it wasn’t. I could see you didn’t remember. But the thing is, you were at Martha’s funeral. I remember because you commented on her famous coconut flan.”
The judge exposed Jake’s deepest fear: “How could I tell the truth from fiction when the past shows itself, then fades away like a mirage?” But Jake sets aside his personal worries to protect his nephew. Melissa and Jake’s opinions of Kip’s way-of-life are markedly different, Melissa seeing it as a “rough patch” that many a 20-year-old might encounter. Jake, in all ways that count, a father to Kip, disagrees. Jake’s worst premonitions are confirmed when he tangles with the wealthy twins who tried to run Kip off the road. Why, what did Kip do to them?
“I’m not saying I’m the smartest guy in school,” Niles confessed.
“I get that. That why you hired Kip to tutor you.”
He laughed at me, a high-pitched cackle. “Tutor me? That’s why I hired him to take the SAT for me.”
Oh, shit! There it was. The gut punch. I must have known it was coming, or something like it, but I’d been in denial.
Jake’s not in denial anymore. Reacting like a parent, he starts a painful self-examination: what had he done when Kip was growing up to cause this? He asks himself, “Had I stunted Kip’s ethical growth?” Fortunately, the case against Kip is too all-encompassing to allow Jake to wallow in self-pity and self-doubt—he needs all his energy to save Kip’s 20-year-old life.
You’ll never look at the college admissions scandal in quite the same way after you read Cheater’s Game. And if you’re new to Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter thrillers, you have some good reading ahead!