Book Review: A Reasonable Doubt

Spoilers ahead!

My copy of the book.

I love magic and illusions because it’s fun to be a mark. That is, to have that moment of wonderment and awe, where you don’t know how the magician or illusionist pulled it off. It is probably the same reason I am so enamored by film, and am an ardent pro wrestling fan. Fortunately, I happened across a novelist who also enjoys magic (and even name checks my favorite, the duo of Penn and Teller, as inspiring him!) in Phillip Margolin, a novelist and criminal defense attorney based out of Oregon. And that’s just more bonus points, adding a different environment than the usual of NYC, LA, Chicago, etc.

So, the first thing I do when I go to Walmart, as I recently did, is head for the book section, with a particular eye toward the bargain bin. I can justify buying a book for $5, right?! I saw Margolin’s 2020 novel, A Reasonable Doubt, in the bin. I read the opening line from the synopsis, “On stage, in front of a crowd, a magician was murdered and no one saw it happen.” Okay, I’m hooked already, but let me keep reading down a few sentences …

Robin Lockwood — of which the cover already said this is “A Robin Lockwood novel” — is a “young criminal defense attorney.”

Welp. I snatched it up. Tell me no more. I don’t know about you all, but it doesn’t take much for me to jump in on a book. Magic. Criminal defense attorney. Let’s go! I love a fun legal thriller, as John Grisham is one of my favorite authors, but I’m also not sure I’ve read a book from the perspective of the criminal defense attorney? The true heroes of courtrooms in my humble opinion. By the way, I usually avoid books that tell me it’s a “such and such” novel because I hate jumping into the middle of a series, but you know, you can because it’s more “episodic” than necessary to have read the prior books, as turned out to be the case here.

Lockwood works for a law firm, and we are set in 2017, when she has womanizer, swindler, con artist and extravagantly faux-British magician, Robert Chesterfield, comes into her office looking for her services to patent a magic trick. Obviously, that would turn out to be a dead-end, because you can’t! To patent it would be to reveal the trick. Nonetheless, that encounter sends Robin down the rabbit hold to the late 1990s, when her predecessor, Regina Barrister, known as the “Sorceress,” got murder (and attempted murder) charges dismissed against Chesterfield.

The short end of it: Chesterfield likely killed one man with cyanide-laced chocolates, so he could marry a rich woman (and con her out of her money); and then he later tried to kill the manager of a wealthy country club for (rightly!) accusing him of cheating at cards, and sexually harassing female club members and staff in the same manner as the prior man, but instead, the manager (on a diet!) passed the chocolates to his secretary, promptly killing her. After being cleared, Chesterfield likely killed the rich wife, too.

I will note, one rather goofy moment, is when the detectives and Peter Ragland, the then assistant district attorney on homicide cases (and only there because of his father), go to Chesterfield’s home to interview him, whereupon Ragland and one of the detectives gladly take drinks from Chesterfield, a man they suspect of poisoning two people! I also thought it didn’t make much sense that Ragland was so involved in the investigation and threatening to arrest people, as if he himself was a detective. I’m not sure DAs, who do indeed work closely with police, are that hands on, but hey, Margolin has far more experience than I do and maybe Oregonians do it differently than Ohioans.

Anyhow, we know Chesterfield is somehow killed during a magic trick in front of a theater of onlookers. We know that he is an unsavory character, who over the course of his life, has ticked off more than a half dozen people. That means there are plenty of suspects who would want him dead, including fellow magicians who believed Chesterfield to be the masked magician behind a series of shows revealing magic’s greatest tricks (I remember watching that when I was a kid!).

The Chamber of Death trick, which is Chesterfield’s trick he thinks will bring him fame and money again so he can satisfy everyone who is mad at him — the inventor who put in the capital needed for the trick, the gambling mob bosses who want to kill him, his agent, and the man behind the casino that will feature him —, is actually a pretty basic case of misdirection. Essentially, Chesterfield goes into a sarcophagus, which is then pumped with “dangerous” snakes and scorpions. When his assistants open the sarcophagus, he’s disappeared and re-appeared in the back of the theater.

Magicians have been doing the “disappear-and-re-appear-at-the-back-of-the-theater” trick for decades; the sarcophagus part with the “dangerous” snakes and scorpions is merely to add some flourish to it, as well as manifest the misdirection. When one of the attendants is supposed to “push” Chesterfield back into the sarcophagus before the other two assistants close the lid, Chesterfield is ostensibly supposed to roll away to escape, take a dolly to a tunnel, and then use that to get back behind the audience. However, the killer uses the “push back down” method to stab Chesterfield in the heart, killing him.

Meanwhile, other people associated with the 1990s case, including Barrister, who in the present day is sadly afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, are targeted for death. Barrister is saved by Robin from eating poisoned chocolates, but others, including judges and the prior defense attorney, are killed.

So, my first thought after Chesterfield was killed, was that the assistant, Nancy, did it. Not only was she the one who was tasked with “shoving” him back into the sarcophagus, so she had access, but that sly dog, Margolin, noted that she was a redhead. I picked up on that! The country club manager’s secretary, who ate the cyanide chocolate, was also a redhead! And we knew she had a daughter (and that after his wife’s murder, and Chesterfield’s subsequent “getting away with it,” the husband committed suicide).

Still, like the Chamber of Death illusion, all about misdirection, Margolin attempted to misdirect me by making it appear as if someone had knocked Nancy unconscious and took her robe in order to imitate her as the assistant and kill Chesterfield. I wasn’t too dissuaded, but my Plan B theory on the “death” was that somehow, Chesterfield had faked his death. After all, the point of the trick is to “cheat death,” and faking his death would (in theory) solve all of Chesterfield’s problems.

It turned out, yes, it was Nancy, real name Jane, who was the daughter of the secretary, and came back for revenge. Fortunately for Barrister, who survived the prior attempt at poisoning her thanks to Robin, when Jane goes for her again at her home, Robin is there to take her on, quite easily, and she’s arrested.

That’s because prior to becoming a criminal defense attorney, Robin was trained in mixed martial arts and even had a brief stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I do find it rather silly that a criminal defense attorney rationalized that the police wouldn’t take her seriously when she told them about Jane targeting Barrister, whom Jane already tried to kill! Which is why Robin went to Barrister’s home alone to take on Jane, but alas.

Still, I ended up enjoying this book far more than I expected, and more than the bargain bin deal would suggest. The best parts of the book were actually the throwback from Barrister about her handling of the Chesterfield murder charges. She really was a Sorceress in the courtroom and I enjoyed her legal maneuvering. And that she pointed out that she didn’t have to like the very unlikable Chesterfield in order to defend him. The law is the law, and the government must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They couldn’t, and so Chesterfield walked.

And it really showed how nepotism isn’t a substitute for knowledge because Ragland was a moron. Not only because he made the same mistake twice of going gung-ho on a would-be suspect, but because in the 1990s case against Chesterfield, he thought he could get the judge to accept introducing a prior (alleged!) murder into the murder case of the secretary. Nope. That’s prior acts and isn’t allowed because it would prejudice the jury, which is exactly what Barrister argued before the judge, who agreed.

I digress; I’m nerding out. If you enjoy legal thrillers, magic and a fun game of whodunnit, then you will enjoy this book, although I don’t know what kind of freaks read a spoiler review of a whodunit, but I won’t yuck your yum. At 289 pages, this was a breezy, mostly one-sitting read, so bargain bin or not, you can’t go wrong with that deal.

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