Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor - Book Review

 The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor (Open Road Mystery & Thriller, 2013, 376 pages, $16.99) is a legal procedural written by a sitting U.S. Circuit Court Judge. It combines a rip-roaring tale of political and legal intrigue spiced with the personal stories of believable characters leading complex lives in a period of stress and distress. Rather than rely upon stereotyped characters, Ponsor places each of them in a context of challenging lives with lots of grey edges. The book suggests that a capital trial, in addition to having the highest of stakes for the defendant, presents levels of moral ambiguity to everyone involved in bringing in a verdict. By seeking to present the characters from both sides of the case in context, Ponsor enriches the reader's understanding of the legal, moral, and personal issues in ways that draw one in and then expand the universe. This is a well-crafted book with few sharp edges and lots of opportunities to follow down false paths, eventually leading to a satisfactory ending despite some of the surprises Ponsor injects.

Set in the declining cities of Holyoke and Springfield, Massachusetts, where David Norcross is in his third year on the bench as U.S. District Court judge, the case involves the murder in a driveby shooting of drug dealer Peach Delgado and the incidental shooting of nurse Ginger Daley O'Connor on a street in Holyoke. O'Connor is related to members of the police force and on her way to a health clinic she helped to found and where she volunteers, thus engendering lots of community outrage. The case comes to the attention of the Attorney General in Washington, D.C. because the current administration sees it as an opportunity to hold a death penalty trial in Massachusetts, where capital punishment has been abolished. The ambitious state U.S. Attorney sees the trial as his ticket to advancement in the Justice Department, as does Lydia Gomez-Larsen, the local Assistant U.S. Attorney who must prosecute the case. Other characters view the approaching trial through their own particular lenses – wife of the accused, witness's mother, judge's clerks, police officers, drug dealers' family members, and so-on all serve to enrich the complexity of the crime and the trial, creating a thick, hearty soup of intrigue, ambition, ambivalence, and ambiguity. Norcross, at the top of this complex pyramid seeks to provide a fair trial while also coming to terms with his own widowhood and desire not to preside over a flawed trial. There are few stereotyped characters, yet the warp and woof of intrigue draws the reader in. The trial is set off against the 1806 execution of two men accused of a murder in Springfield, quickly apprehended, and tried. This actual trial echoes down through the history of western Massachusetts and imbues the novel with added poignancy. The introduction of Claire Lindmann, a local English professor, as Norcross' reawakened romantic interest adds spice and drama to the narrative, which drives along a good speed while never neglecting to reflect place and context through effective use of description and dialogue.

Ponsor's device of using the shadow trial from 1805 injects the issue of differences and prejudice into the story. The two men tried 200 years ago are Irish and Catholic in the still strongly Anglo-Saxon Protestant area of western Massachusetts. But the composition of the population of this area has changed. Now the police are predominantly Irish and Catholic, while the bad guys are Hispanic and black. Thus, racial and ethnic considerations join the political ones in this developing case. The injection of the left-wing radical Novotny, who sees the death penalty as an example of the corruption of the system, adds spice as does a loopy character, Mrs. Abercrombie, pursuing her own grievances by writing her briefs and showing up at inconvenient moments. 

Michael Ponsor
Michael Ponsor graduated from Harvard, received a Rhodes Scholarship, and studied for two years at Pembroke College, Oxford. After taking his law degree from Yale and clerking in federal court in Boston, he began his legal career, specializing in criminal defense. He moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1978, where he practiced as a trial attorney in his own firm until his appointment in 1984 as a US magistrate judge in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed him a life-tenured US district judge. From 2000 to 2001, he presided over a five-month death penalty trial, the first in Massachusetts in over fifty years. Judge Ponsor continues to serve as a senior US district judge in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Western Division, with responsibility for federal criminal and civil cases in the four counties of western Massachusetts. The Hanging Judge is his first novel.

Michael Ponsor's The Hanging Judge (Open Road Mystery & Thriller, 2013, 376 pages, $16.99) is a first rate legal procedural novel with plenty of thrills to go around while never losing track of the issues surrounding capital punishment. It's engaging and thought provoking, well-paced and carefully plotted with no loose ends. A solid, professional job, especially for a firt novel. The book is published by Open Road Media, and is primarily available as an e-book, although the ad on Amazon suggests it can be purchased as a paperback, too. Open Road describes itself as an e-book publisher making digital publications available across a variety of platforms. This raises questions about what a book is, how we read, and what's happening to the publishing industry. Does the emergence of e-publishers further enrich the universe of available literature, or, by interrupting the traditional editorial process, does it dilute the quality of what's available? Judging from the high quality of this book, readers can only benefit from publication becoming available to an increasingly wide group of content producers. The book was supplied to me by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.