Features On the Cover: Robert Dugoni
A Woman Finally Takes the Lead
By Rick Pullen
Legal thrillers have evolved over the years, yet they haven’t changed all that much.
Modern day legal thrillers trace their roots to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series, which died out with him in 1970. Then in 1987 Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent blasted onto the scene and resurrected the genre. Four years later, John Grisham’s The Firm and his subsequent and previous legal thrillers dominated the category—and still do to this day. Beginning in 2005, The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly’s GPS-driven series, gave the genre a twist with an attorney working out of his Lincoln town car while courtroom hopping.
These legal thrillers have one thing in common: they’re dominated by men.
Robert Dugoni’s HER DEADLY GAME changes that. He’s beginning a new series with female protagonist, defense attorney Keera Duggan, in a stunning new thriller. If his future courtroom dramas are as good as this one, legal thriller fans will be thrilled.
HER DEADLY GAME follows Duggan, a former chess prodigy who resigned from the Seattle prosecutor’s office after her relationship with a colleague soured. She joins the family criminal defense firm named for her alcoholic father, Patrick.
We’re introduced to Keera as co-counsel in the middle of a simple DUI case when Patrick fails to return from a liquid lunch to cross examine the arresting officer. In his absence, she must take over the defense immediately, even though she’s not familiar with the details of the case. Keera displays her mastery, turning a doomed court case into a victory for her client and creating a buzz among the courthouse crowd.
But it’s her first major criminal defense case against her former lover (of course), the cunning and win-at-all-costs prosecutor Miller Ambrose, where this story begins.
Duggan is tasked with defending wealthy investment adviser Vince LaRussa, who is accused of killing his rich wife while she was preparing to divorce him. Did he do it or was he set up? If so, by whom? Duggan’s job is not to determine his guilt or innocence, but to assure she keeps him out of prison. That’s what defense attorneys do, after all.
In addition to the pressures from her job, for years Keera and her siblings have tiptoed around their erratic, but brilliant father’s drinking. Yet it’s with Patrick Duggan’s help that this story begins to turn into a suspenseful legal meeting of the minds. Like a game of chess where several moves are planned ahead of time, Patrick engages in one of the best courtroom cross examinations I’ve read. His questioning of Frank Rossi, lead detective in the case, is a textbook for any aspiring young trial lawyer. If you know someone who’s considering law school, have them read this novel and study that scene.
Brilliant in its subtlety, magnificent in its genteel gotcha moments, Dugoni shows how a gifted lawyer can build his case with nuanced cross examination to calmly draw out the answers he seeks from a straight-talking detective without eviscerating him on the stand (as Gardner’s Perry Mason did so frequently more than a half century ago). Patrick Duggan’s subtle questioning lays out every piece of favorable evidence before the jury with sparkling clarity. It begins when Miller switches up witnesses in an effort to rattle his former lover Keera. But Patrick realizes Miller has erred and pounces on it to discredit the witness Miller has yet to call to the stand.
Think of it as Keera and her father finessing this courtroom chess game to take an overconfident prosecutor’s queen with a lowly pawn. Dugoni, who doesn’t play chess, uses his 23 years of legal experience to set up the game board.
Dugoni started his fiction writing career penning David Sloane legal thrillers 17 years ago. But they never took off after the first one and aren’t nearly as suspenseful and well-crafted as HER DEADLY GAME. He goes deep this time creating his new protagonist, which should make this new series one to anticipate.
“In court she’s tough as nails. And out of court, she’s really complex,” Dugoni says. “Trial lawyers come off as fearless and I’ve observed enough trial lawyers to know that’s not true. It’s a facade they put on in the courtroom…. Outside of court, they have the same problems as everybody else.” Which is what we see in Keera Duggan and the way she handles her dad and faces down her sisters, who also work at the firm.
What a difference 17 years makes since his David Sloane series launched. I suspect Dugoni fans will agree he’s hit a new high and just keeps getting better with every new novel. Yet it is his Tracy Crosswhite detective series that put him on the map and keeps him on the bestseller lists. HER DEADLY GAME shows Dugoni’s track record for creating great female protagonists is no fluke. I suspect you’ll see this series climbing to the top alongside Tracy Crosswhite.
Dugoni decided to pull on his legal roots again after talking with Gracie Doyle, the editorial director at Thomas & Mercer, his publisher. He meets regularly with her to discuss story ideas and it was Doyle, in one of those meetings that suggested he try his hand again at legal thrillers.
“It’s really a literary courtroom drama, which is not what I set out to do, but how it turned out,” he says. “I never think in terms of what genre I want to write. I think in terms of what story I want to tell.”
“The law is a suspenseful profession,” Dugoni says. “It’s got that built-in tension.”
And he’s captured it. He next wants to explore women’s equality in the workplace. “Equality in the legal profession is bullshit,” he says. “Female lawyers will still tell you they’re harassed.”
Dugoni is a workhorse, turning out two, sometimes three novels a year. He says he’s going to set aside his Charles Jenkins Russian spy series for now in favor of his new courtroom dramas.
A return to legal thrillers seems timely. After decades of the guys having all the fun, isn’t it time a woman finally started cross-examining the genre?
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