by Michael Schein
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Just Deceits should please readers who enjoy courtroom mysteries and historical novels set in post-Revolutionary America, provided they can overlook some florid prose and jarring metaphors.
In 1793, two members of the Randolph family of Virginia were arrested and charged with adultery and infanticide. The Randolphs were an American aristocracy to which future President Thomas Jefferson and future Supreme Court Justice John Marshall both belonged. Nancy Randolph was the eighteen-year-old sister of her cousin Richard Randoph's wife Judith. One October evening while visiting her sister and brother-in-law, Nancy became indisposed during the dinner hour and retired to her room. During the night, the family and their guests heard her screaming in pain.
Did she give birth, or merely suffer an attack of colic? Was the dead baby which a neighbor claimed to have seen in his shingle pile white, black, or a vicious slander? Young lawyer John Marshall is determined to cut through his clients' evasions and the tangle of conflicting evidence to learn the truth and win an important case, two goals which do not always seem compatible. The last-minute addition of the grandstanding Patrick Henry as his co-counsel adds a new challenge.
Author Michael Schein taught American legal history for fifteen years. His tense, realistic, often humorous courtroom scenes offer readers a fascinating look at the early years of the still-evolving American justice system. In the early chapters of Just Deceits, references to Marshall's "squashed" head seem unpleasantly exaggerated, while inflated descriptions like that of the grand windows which "covered in crimson brocatelle, winked like the bloodshot eyes of a drunkard" distract from what is essentially a skillfully structured story full of suspense and surprising twists and turns. In the courtroom scenes, the overblown prose settles into a more straightforward style that allows readers to become more closely involved with the characters and story. Schein is a writer to watch. (2008, 308 pages)
More about Just Deceits at Powell's Books or Amazon.com
Other novels set partly or entirely in post-Revolutionary America:
Dolley by Rita Mae Brown (1994), about Dolley Madison, the second First Lady of the United States.
Sally Hemings by Barbara Chase-Riboud (1979), about the slave woman who most experts now believe was Thomas Jefferson's lover.
The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss (2008), a thriller set in the years before the Whiskey Rebellion. Review
Citizen Washington by William Martin (1999), a biographical novel about George Washington.
Nonfiction about John Marshall:
The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law by Charles F. Hobson (1996)
John Marshall and the Heroic Age of the Supreme Court by R. Kent Newmyer (2001)
John Marshall: Definer of a Nation by Jean Edward Smith (1998)
Wikipedia entry on John Marshall
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