October 18, 2018

Stern thriller

The legal thriller is a fast track for debut novelists, but Robert Rotstein enters the race at winning speed with “Corrupt Practices” (Seventh Street Books, $15.95).

Rotstein gives us an updated version of Los Angeles that recalls the mean streets of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled mystery fiction. His protagonist, a 37-year-old phobic trial lawyer named Parker Stern, sits in a West Hollywood coffee bar and loses himself in a book about Gladys Towles Root, a celebrity lawyer of an earlier era. The place is his purgatory: “One of the baristas brings me a fresh macchiato, even though I didn’t order one,” Stern tells us. “I really am a fixture in this place.”

Stern is a flawed hero. Ever since his mentor took his own life, Stern has suffered from disabling stage fright that keeps him out of the courtroom where he once shined. “I’ve tried everything — psychotherapy, yoga, meditation, bio-feedback, Valium, Xanax,” he tells the reader. “Nothing works.” But he is challenged to enter the courtroom again when Rich Baxter, a former colleague, is charged with embezzling funds from a client.

The client — and the focus of the mystery plot — is the Church of Sanctified Assembly, a cult that reminds us of any number of eccentric religious communities that have sprung up like mushrooms on the Southern California turf over the years. “Christian fundamentalism meets New Age doctrine,” Stern explains, “the Pentecostals meet Scientology.”

Rotstein is a prominent Southern California entertainment attorney, and his professional experience considerably enriches the mystery story that he tells in “Corrupt Practices.” But he is also — and above all — a gifted storyteller. The narrative is fast-paced, the characters are variously endearing or intriguing and sometimes both, and plenty of secrets and surprises are thrown off like sparks. For fear of spoiling the suspense, I will not disclose them here. Suffice it to say, however, that nothing is exactly what it seems at first, and more than one suicide begins to look like murder.

“[T]he act of suicide is so accessible, because it’s so human,” muses Deanna Poulos, another lawyer who has fallen from grace and now runs the coffee bar where Stern hangs out. “No other species does it. Not really. And there’s a perfect logic to it — what better way to end pain? And it works for the atheists and the true believer.” 

The author even masters the sex scenes, a treacherous exercise for many mystery novelists, although the explicit passages are somewhat softened by Stern’s sentimental side: “We undress and lie on the couch,” he writes of an erotic encounter with Deanna. “I inhale her familiar scent of verbena and coriander, now leavened with the aroma of roasted coffee.” Deana, in return, compliments his sexual prowess in a way that, um, transcends gender orientation.

But Rotstein is also willing to go to the darkest of places. Stern moonlights as a law school instructor, for example, and mentors one of his students — a beautiful young woman with the unlikely name of Lovely Diamond — in the defense of an accused child pornographer. So we find ourselves confronting the worst-case-scenario of a lawyer’s professional life: “No matter how much you believe in the adversary system, there are some cases you refuse to take,” Stern says. “This sleazebag … doesn’t deserve a defense.”

Lovely is full of surprises herself. She may present herself provocatively — “She’ll get a chill dressed like that,” cracks Stern about one of her outfits — but she is also capable of setting a traditional table for Shabbat. “My mother was a challah baker,” she says. “I can never bake it like she did, but I try.” Still, the author offers an ironic joke when Lovely serves the main course: Linguini puttanesca, which means “whore’s pasta.” Later, the joke pays off when Lovely “spends the rest of the evening showing me several ways of an observant Jewish girl to honor the Sabbath.”

“Corrupt Practices” is the ideal summer read — a genuine page-turner by an author who respects himself and his readers enough to enrich his accomplished thriller with a healthy measure of moral quandary, erotic byplay and sly good humor.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright). Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.