Sunday, June 18, 2017


PRESUMED GUILTY by Mark McGinn (2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

When feisty lawyer Sasha Stace secures the acquittal of a sleazy politician charged with rape, it’s one legal victory too many. Disillusioned, she looks to the High Court bench for more fulfillment. But before she can become a judge, there’s one more criminal defense – a trial with complications, a trial like no other. 

The man arrested for murder is her former lover, the lawyer seeking Sasha’s help in the case is the daughter she gave up for adoption over thirty years ago and the ambitious, grudge-holding prosecutor is closely connected to an attorney general who does not want her involved. 

Legal thrillers are a hugely popular 'subgenre' of crime fiction in the United States, but rather rare in New Zealand, so it was with a fair dollop of curiosity that I started Presumed Guilty. How would the parry-and-thrust of courtroom drama translate to a Kiwi setting, where we don't have the threat of the death penalty, the added politics of elected judges and district attorneys, or the splintered law enforcement jigsaw of local and state police, sheriff's departments, FBI and other federal agencies, all vying for a slice of the action?

While the New Zealand criminal justice system might be simpler on the surface, with less room for graft and corruption to fester, McGinn shows that there can still be plenty of drama. Presumed Guilty is a very good read that drew me in early, and I thoroughly enjoyed throughout. The combination of interesting, flawed characters, and an intriguing storyline both in and out of the courtroom, had me kicking myself for not getting to McGinn's Sasha Stace books earlier (this is the third in the series).

Sasha Stace is a middle-aged woman with a great reputation as a criminal lawyer. She's a QC, or Queen's Counsel, which is a high-ranking honour awarded to only the most eminent lawyers. But in Presumed Guilty, she's ready to throw it all away after she successfully defends a sleazy politician on a sex charge. Questioning herself professionally and personally, she's tempted by a new opportunity to become a judge (note: judges are appointed based on experience and merit in New Zealand, like elsewhere in the Commonwealth, rather than being elected by locals as they are in some places in the United States, or a career track you specifically study for like some places in continental Europe).

But then one last case crops up. One Sasha Stace isn't sure she wants to take. Her ex, a journalist who's often called politicians and police to account for their actions, is accused of murdering his wife. A fellow journalist who he left Sasha for, years before. While Sasha wants to believe the man she knew would never do anything like that, she also knows that he's capable of obscuring the truth.

Can she trust him? Should she defend him? And if she does, how can she possibly save him when the police and politicians are bringing everything to bear to convict him. Justice, or payback?

Throw in the sudden reappearance of the daughter Sasha adopted out decades ago, and the failing health of her father-like mentor, and Sasha is tip-toeing through an emotional and legal minefield.

I really liked this book. It was a great page-turner, where McGinn drew me in well and made sure I really wanted to know how the legal case would turn out (had Sasha's ex done it or not? where would the verdict fall, regardless?). But there is also more to Presumed Guilty. The character of Sasha Stace is a fascinating one. She's a top lawyer, but very human - she makes mistakes, has doubts, is affected by her past and needs to work through her own issues while trying to help others. She's strong without being rigid or superhuman - a character that is easy to follow and empathise with.

I also enjoyed the cast around Stace, who had layers and weren't just moving pieces. There was a real sense of believability with many of the relationships, professional and personal, and even if events were dramatic (as you want in good fiction), they felt organic and 'fitted' the world McGinn has created, rather than feeling forced by the author for plot reasons. Some nice shades of grey among the 'heroes' and antagonists. People clash not just because they're good/bad, but because they're people.

Overall I found Presumed Guilty to be a really engaging read that was a pleasant surprise: a top quality Kiwi legal thriller. I'll definitely be going back to read the other Sasha Stace books.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading newspapers and magazines in several countries. He's interviewed more than 180 crime writers, appeared onstage at festivals in Europe and Australasia, is a judge of the McIlvanney Prize, and Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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