Review: The Third Victim by Phillip Margolin

The Third Victim by Phillip Margolin is the first book in a new series of legal thrillers from the “master of heart-pounding suspense” (available March 6, 2018).

Lawyer-turned-novelist Philip Margolin has written more than 20 novels—many of which have been New York Times bestsellers—in a career that has spanned decades and drawn upon his longtime career as a criminal defense attorney whose trial experience encompassed a multitude of capital cases. His works have been adapted as television films and miniseries, and accolades have included both the Spotted Owl Award for Best Northwest Mystery (Executive Privilege) and the Willamette Writers’ 2009 Distinguished Northwest Writers Award as well as nominations for the Edgar Award and Oregon Book Award. Margolin’s newest, The Third Victim, marks his first title from Minotaur Books.

As the story opens, Caleb White—cousin of Hammond County Sheriff’s Office deputy Harry White—nearly runs down a young woman who stumbles out of the forest and into his path in the area of Oregon’s Whisper Lake. When he recovers from the shock of this near-miss and exits his vehicle, it’s to discover that she has duct tape secured to her wrists and ankles, a bloodied face and limbs, torn clothing, and other signs of physical trauma.

Caleb quickly lifts her into the truck, notifies his cousin of the situation, and transports her to the local emergency room for treatment. It’s there that barista Meredith Fenner—aka “the third victim” (after two dead prostitutes)—offers a harrowing account of being beaten, tortured, and starved before escaping her imprisonment.

Meanwhile, up-and-comer Robin Lockwood—a former MMA fighter—has just left a clerkship at the Oregon State Bar to work for legendary criminal defense attorney Regina Barrister, known in some circles as “The Sorceress” for her courtroom wizardry. Robin’s first assignment is to act as second chair in representing prominent local attorney Alex Mason, who has been charged with Meredith Kenner’s abduction and subsequent abuse based on the victim’s identification of his summer home as her place of captivity, as well as her recognition of his speech and stature. Though Mason adamantly denies any wrongdoing, his wife’s statement to the authorities corroborates a pension for sexual deviancy that, coupled with physical evidence recovered from the scene, creates a compelling if circumstantial argument against him.

This case is the opportunity of a lifetime for Robin, and she quickly identifies an alternate suspect: policeman Arnold Prater; this suspicion presents a conflict of interest, however, as Prater—who has been hit with a harassment lawsuit by a local pimp/drug dealer—is also a client of theirs. Barrister, however, refuses to entertain the notion—and Robin risks her wrath by quietly enlisting the practice’s investigator to follow-up her hunch.

But even more troubling to Robin than her boss’s seeming disinterest in pursuing an alternate theory of the crime is the fact that Barrister is exhibiting signs of memory loss. Is this simply the result of aging, or is it the onset of Alzheimer’s? The consequences are grave, given that Barrister’s livelihood and reputation depend on her ability to provide effective counsel to her clients, many of whom (like Alex Mason) face the death penalty if convicted.

Margolin employs alternating perspectives throughout the narrative. These include, but are not limited to, Robin, Detective Carrie Anders, the aforementioned Harry White, and Regina Barrister; Robin’s and Barrister’s viewpoints are most effectual, given their bearing on one another. Indeed, Barrister is very much aware of her own cognitive vulnerability—one that has manifested itself in manners both simple (misplaced keys, forgotten social engagements) and serious (compromised courtroom performance, impaired judgment)—and the resultant anxiety and fear is palpable, providing an emotional undercurrent to matters of personal and professional significance. While the presentation can be a bit heavy-handed at times, the overall portrait of a woman in crisis is poignant and sensitively rendered.

Despite a few developments that may strain credulity, the story is thoroughly engrossing—due largely in part to its cast of characters, who manage to be wholly compelling even when utilized sparingly. It is worth noting that there are several points that draw readers into a false sense of superiority. You will be firmly convinced that you’ve guessed the author’s endgame; you will likely be wrong. A multitude of third-act plot twists shatter carefully constructed facades, resulting in a finale that straddles the line between satisfying and surprising.

Like the best of his books, The Third Victim is an intellectually engaging page-turner that’s grounded as much in emotion as it is in legalities. Questions of personal responsibility and professional ethics—and the near-inevitable conflict(s) between the two—abound, resulting in a thought-provoking story that also delivers some legitimate thrills. It’d be advisable to stipulate to this one fact: Philip Margolin remains a force to be reckoned with.   

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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