Review: Little Boy Lost by J. D. Trafford

Little Boy Lost by J. D. Trafford deals with a broken city, a missing young man, and a lawyer searching for truth when nobody else cares (available August 1, 2017).

What a wonderfully timely examination of race relations in America! Justin Glass—the hero of J. D. Trafford’s smart, nuanced and highly entertaining new legal thriller—is a biracial street lawyer who is having a hard time making ends meet despite coming from a family of material means and political connections. His father is a renowned politician, long active in the Civil Rights movement, who’s represented St Louis, Missouri’s congressional district for decades. His mother is the daughter of a respected and now retired judge of decidedly more conservative leanings who is only now loosening up to his mixed-race family. Justin’s brother, Lincoln, has gone into politics as well and expects to succeed their father in Congress.

Justin, on the other hand, is struggling with the depression that crippled him after the death of his beloved wife. He knows he’s lucky to have his extended family help with taking care of his teenage daughter as he slowly pieces his life back together. For now, that consists of taking whichever cases come his way, including the defense against a public intoxication charge that Justin suspects might become more trouble than it’s worth:

The fifth message was from Cecil Bates, one of the public defender cases that I had handled this morning. He wanted me to call him back immediately to discuss his defense strategy. He had been doing research at the public library, and he wanted to share with me several United States Supreme Court cases that he had found.

Warning flags went up all around me.

I wrote down Cecil’s information and considered how quickly I should return his call. If I called him back too soon, he might come to expect that response every time he contacted me. If I waited too long, he’d sour on me. He’d make my life hell until his case was resolved. These were the kind of real-world problems that never get discussed in law school.

This is the kind of small potatoes case that Justin believes he can handle right about now, working solo out of a storefront in a rundown part of town. He just wants to keep his head down and trudge through the low-paying trenches of everyday legal work, doing his job well enough to make the bare minimum to support himself and his daughter.

Fate, however, has other plans in the form of a 10-year-old desperate enough to attempt to hire a lawyer with the money from her grandmother’s swear jar. Tanisha Walker’s beloved older brother, Devon, has gone missing, and no one else seems to care. Justin reluctantly agrees to ask around, resulting in his contact at the police station bringing him the horrifying news: Devon might just be one of the several corpses newly unearthed in the woods, the suspected victims of a serial killer preying on young black men written off by society.

Soon, Justin is representing families desperate to find out whether any of these Lost Boys—as the media has dubbed them—could be their missing sons and brothers. Uncomfortably for Justin, this combined with his famous last name makes him the public face of black anger and grief in St Louis. Even worse, Lincoln is only too happy to make political capital off of this, especially after Justin is brutalized by the police in a case of mistaken identity:

“This is solid.” Lincoln pointed at me. “People need to see what the police did to you, all banged up. Tomorrow you’ll be clean and rested, and that’s no good.” He nodded, agreeing with his own plan. “Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and now you.”

“Hardly.” I raised my hand, anger rising, but I wasn’t sure whether I was angry at Lincoln or the police—or both. “All those guys are gone.” I closed my eyes, trying to focus through the pain. “I’m lucky I wasn’t shot tonight, but…” I faded. My breathing slowed. Every breath hurt. “I’m not doing the politics thing tonight or tomorrow or the next day. What part of that don’t you seem to understand?”

Justin is the perfect Everyman hero for a book as good as this one. Little Boy Lost is a thoughtful look at the American legal and political systems and how they serve, or increasingly fail, the public. Alive with fascinating details of the implementation of the law, it provides an even-handed look at all sides, never offering facile excuses or remedies for the failings of individuals or collectives.

And, above all, it is a fine piece of entertainment! The characters are deeply relatable, and it’s so much fun to see Justin’s team—composed primarily of Bosnian refugees—coalesce around him as he seeks justice and closure for his clients. Of course, this puts him in the crosshairs of a serial killer who has no compunctions about killing one more black man in order to maintain a secret identity.

If you care at all about American politics, our legal system, or race relations, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The multiple plot threads are dealt with intelligently and sensitively—I’ve barely skimmed the surface in my review here. Little Boy Lost is a novel as rich and satisfying to the empathetic reader as it is entertaining. I'm hoping it's the first in a series, as Justin, his family, and his friends are people whose exploits I'm eager to spend more time reading about.


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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.

Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.


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