The 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni is a riveting legal thriller, nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
The 7th Canon illuminates Peter Donley’s judicial chops as he asks the judge of his current case to call a bird to the stand, or, more specifically, an African gray parrot named Albert to determine if Donley’s client is the rightful owner. The elderly man in danger of losing the mimic asks his pet if he wants to watch The Andy Griffith Show, and—sure enough—Albert begins whistling the classic TV opener. Of course, it also brings to mind that other classic Griffith show, Matlock, where a case of a whistling parrot would fit in comfortably with the legal drama.
Donley works at his uncle’s law firm—The Law Offices of Lou Giantelli—in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, a rough and tumble area that has seen better times. He has ambition beyond Lou’s small-time operation, but with a wife, Kim, and a two-year-old son, Benny, he’s just happy to be employed.
And, less I give the impression this is a cute mystery thriller, not too many blocks away from Lou’s practice is Father Thomas Martin, who operates the Tenderloin boy’s shelter that he’d convinced the Church to open—though it’s a middling success at best. As a storm approaches, he heads to secure the front door when he slips and falls, breaking his arm. He’s mortified to see there’s blood layering the floor and receives a supplementary jolt:
Though his brain urged him forward, his feet remained anchored to the floor. He dropped to his knees and reached out, hoping to touch porcelain but instead feeling flesh.
Andrew Bennet’s body lay in the manger, arms draped over the sides, knuckles dragging in the puddle of blood beneath the straw. Lightning crackled overhead, a strobe of sharp, blue light. A second later, thunder rocked the building, and the first drops of rain splattered on the glass roof.
The storm had arrived.
The priest, a seemingly dedicated man of God, is arrested when a letter opener is found stained with blood, and, too conveniently, an envelope of photographs described as “Hard core, prepubescent. Enough to shock any juror.” Leading the police investigation is bullish Detective Dixon Connor, who had it in for Father Tom even before the murder, accusing the priest of running a shelter to hide the scum of the area.
Lou sends his subordinate to the jail to represent Father Tom, but a flood of anxiety attacks Donley brought on by the memory of his dad.
Sweat trickled down Donley’s face. The scar on his cheek, the one the plastic surgeons had turned into a thin white line, burned numb. His chest heaved, but it brought no air. He couldn’t catch his breath. Couldn’t breathe. The walls began to close in. The floor tilted and turned.
Donley stood, toppling the plastic chair.
The priest’s eyes opened—dark, inhuman.
It’s a bad day for our legal eagles because, right in the middle of pleading a case, Lou collapses from a stroke and is rushed to the hospital. Donley, who had hopes of moving on to, perhaps, a bigger law firm now begins slipping down the success ladder while facing ballooning responsibilities and inner demons.
The priest and cop/lawyer routine has been done to death, but Mr. Dugoni makes it work all the same. Plenty of action and a welcoming amount of humor at just the right moments. The banter early on between Donley and his uncle Lou is particularly charming and heartfelt. The 7th Canon, with all its dark subject matter and bits of breeziness, clicks right along to the end.
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David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.