There are very few books where the protagonist is a black man. Lincoln Rhyme in the Jeffery Deaver series. And Irving Wallace made a reluctant man of color president in The Man. Well, maybe I should qualify the beginning statement a bit: There are few black protagonists in books authored by people other than black authors. And in the case of Christopher Darden’s The Last Defense, not only is the protagonist black, but most of the supporting players are as well. And so is one of the authors.
Now, if the name Christopher Darden doesn’t ring a bell, go back to the end of the century (the 1990’s) and revisit the Trial of the Century. Christopher Darden was one of the prosecuting attorneys assigned to present the state’s case against O.J. Simpson. Remember him now? Not only did he do an excellent job prosecuting that case (although unsuccessful), he has helped produce a great work of fiction with the help of awarding-winning crime fiction writer Dick Lochte.
Fast-paced and lean, this novel introduces us to an up-and-coming young lawyer, Mercer Early, who is on the fast track to success, winning cases that look unwinnable and dating the beautiful daughter of one of the firm’s parners (who isn’t too pleased with the arrangement). The Last Defense begins with Early getting his client, a truly despicable drug dealer, off on a technicality, and, for good measure, making the arresting police officer look like a second-rate torturer. With politics ever a backdrop in law novels (and reality), Early, though triumphant, is censured by his fiance’s father.
Then the drug dealer is killed — and everything starts pointing back at the so-called ‘dirty’ cop that Early had derided in court. The twist comes when Early is asked by the cop, through the cop’s girlfriend, to represent him. More internal and external politicking ensues. Early is fired. Then rehired. And through it all, the one overriding reason he took the ‘dirty’ cop’s case is that he has something to hide in his past as well, something the cop and his girlfriend both know, something Early doesn’t want anyone else to know, including the firm and his fiance.
There is a second, slightly lesser, protagonist in this novel. Lionel Mingus is a detective with Internal Affairs at LAPD, once the star of the homicide division and now relegated to going after other policemen because of events associated with a penchant for alcholic consumption. Asked to put a hand in the investigation into the shady events surrounding the drug dealer’s death, he is later called off (politics again), but he refuses to do so (which is a good thing, because no good legal thriller or mystery has ever been solved by someone who did exactly as he was told).
Working from two separate perspectives, our two protagonists fight their inner and outer demons to get to the bottom of this mystery, which takes us through the underbelly of Los Angeles to the heights of the city’s powerful elite. An excellent portrayal of the modern black man as an upwardly mobile figure, Darden and Lochte imbue their characters with realism. Not only a great legal thriller, The Last Defense shows us the hard facts of being a successful minority in today’s America. It also shows us that we are better to know and accept ourselves for who and what we are than to fall prey to cultural and societal stereotypes and/or expectations.
No objections there.