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In an earlier review of a Brad Meltzer novel I suggested that "There are at least four ingredients that are required for a work of fiction to work: character, credibility, conflict, and consistency. Add to those: style, crisp writing, clever plotting, and the occasional surprise and you are just about headed for the best sellers' list. In Dead Even Brad Meltzer does his best to mix all of those ingredients in a balanced recipe, but he doesn't quite bring it off." Once again in The Tenth Justice Meltzer has trouble portraying characters in a credible manner with the result that the work suffers from a lack of sharp editing.
We are introduced to the protagonist, Ben Addison, a recent graduate from Yale Law:
BEN ADDISON WAS SWEATING. LIKE A PIG.
And it wasn't supposed to be this way.
In the past three hours, Ben had read the current issues of The Washington Post, The New York Times, Law Week, and Legal Times. Last night, before going to bed, he'd committed to memory every major Supreme Court case from the previous session. He'd also made a list of every Supreme Court opinion Justice Mason Hollis had ever written, and, to be safe, he'd reread Hollis's biography. No matter what the subject, Ben was convinced he was prepared for any topic Justice Hollis might raise. In his briefcase, he had packed two legal pads, four pens, two pencils, a pocket legal dictionary, a pocket thesaurus, and--since he'd heard that Supreme Court clerks typically work straight through lunch--a turkey sandwich. Without question, Ben Addison was ready.
But he was still sweating. Like a pig.
Ben arrives early for the orientation that the Supreme Court law clerks receive before starting their prestigious jobs working for the justices. In the orientation the clerks learn of the rules that govern their behavior. Ben meets Lisa Schulman, his co-clerk, and the possibility of sex and other competitive games arises. The law clerks constitute the "tenth justice" because of the influence they yield in presenting arguments to the justices. While Ben's and Lisa's Justice of the Supreme Court is away on vacation in Norway a stay of execution request arrives at their office. As new-comers they are a bit unsure of how to proceed but luckily a Rick Fagen calls and offers them advice. Ben believes that Rick is a former law clerk and meets him to thank him for the assistance. During that meeting Ben reveals the not yet announced outcome of a merger case to Rick, believing that Rick is a trusted friend.
This violation of a confidence rule sets off the Byzantine and convoluted plot as Ben soon realizes that he has been suckered into revealing the decision and that he will be fired if the truth comes out. Millions of dollars are made by using the early knowledge of the outcome. The ease with which Ben falls for the line Rick gives him is an indication of the credibility problems of the novel. Now Rick owns Ben and will be calling on him for more insider information.
And then we meet a collection of Ben's long-time friends who are now his roommates and who have (conveniently for the plot) insider jobs in the Senate, the State Department, and a Washington newspaper. The four of them have been friends since grade school and their conversations are filled with cutesy sarcastic remarks and emotional explosions, jokes, and differing levels of loyalty and suspicion as the plot unwinds. His insider friends will be able to use their connections to "help" Ben after he gets himself in trouble. As the plot unwinds various schemes are advanced to find Rick, to save Ben, and to discover who is good and who is not. Will Ben and his friends be able to find out who Rick is? Will they be able to stop him? Will Ben save his prestigious job?
Character – most of the people are one dimensional and Ben particularly is hard to accept as anyone to care about. At one point while listening to the audiobook I swore that if Ben said "I'm sorry" once more after one of his emotional outbreaks I was going to throw my player across the gym.
Credibility – stretched to the snapping point by actions that often just do not seem to be "in character". Some of the second tier of characters are sketched with bold strokes and are credible.
Conflict – Meltzer has set up a powerful conflict between good and evil and keeps us guessing just who is on which side until near the end. The final dramatic scene is filled with violence and melodrama plus a few real surprises.
Consistency – Ben is just not smart enough to carry the load that is the plot.
The dialogue is often stilted, and as a result characters are never fleshed out with human characteristics that would make them of interest. Actually the cruel, manipulative, evil Rick is the most human of the lot. And, in a way, the Supreme Court of the United States is the major character in the novel.
© 2009 Bob Lane
Bob Lane, MA is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.