Review

    Ties That Bind
    by Phillip Margolin (Liberia 1965–67)
    HarperColins Publishers
    352 pages
    March 2003
    $25.95

    Audio Cassette version:
    read by George Guidall
    HarperAudio
    $34.95

    Reviewed by W. Tucker Clark (Nepal 1967–70)

    WHAT A CASE OF EERIE SERENDIPITY! I had been feeding a strong appetite for listening to “car books” and had just started Ties That Bind when I received it to review. I embarked on an experiment to both listen and read the legal mystery thriller — a genre I like — and possibly see what influences from the Peace Corps experience might have affected this highly successful author. I figured he might give us Peace Corps aspiring writers some hints to his success!
         First I think it is so great that we have such successful writers in the Peace Corps alumni ranks. Margolin says that he is self-taught in the how-to’s of this difficult genre. 25 years as a criminal defense attorney in Oregon, appearing before the Supreme Court, and arguing some 30 homicide and death penalty cases helped, I imagine. In 1996 — even though he claims to have still really liked his legal day job, he took up writing full-time.
         I tried to see if he had anything cooking related to his Liberian Peace Corps experience, so I asked him on the bulletin board at his interactive website www.phillipmargolin.com, and he replied that he was horrified by the atrocities in places he well knew, and hadn’t come up with anything, except that his daughter was a PCV now!
         Meanwhile I also wanted to see if he was effective in both print and audio. We are hit on television, in movies, and in books and magazines with so many legal-based, sometimes formulaic stories; all the Law & Order-like television series, John Grisham, Dominic Dunne’s real-life studies, Court TV and even the Television Judges have made of all of us discerning, hard-to-please, bloodthirsty and meaning-hungry legal literati! Fortunately you can turn off or put down a lot of this genre early because — unlike Margolin’s — a sorry, badly written, nonsensical drama is an easy spot .

    About the story
    In this, his eighth best seller, Margolin is reprising a popular earlier character, the Portland lawyer Amanda Jaffe, who is still recovering from a near-death, traumatizing court room encounter with a true sociopath [Wild Justice (2000)]. Her fragile, self-doubting, emotional state reminds one of that great, weird-eyed, lead in the TV series, The Profiler. The way the book is pitched, she is being reluctantly drawn into representing an escort service-owning, pimp, who is being charged with killing a US Senator and — sacre-bleu! — even his last lawyer. The colorful jailed hustler has an absurd contention that he has the goods on several high-ranking, powerful Oregon men who have a 30 year old, secret society — the Vaughn Street Glee Club — that is bent on murder and taking over the Presidency. This bit of news whets my conspiracy theory tastebud and draws Ms. Jaffe into many very unpredictable plot twists.
         Mixed in with seedy politicos and yuppie types, there are drug dens and prostitutes and a nice contretemps as she defends the pimp and goes up against Tim Harrigan, a Heismann-trophy -winning ex-footballer state attorney who has a steady stream of his own sleaze to overcome as well.
          The motivations for why the power boys must do so much killing and be so brutal with people who know things about their 30-year-long conspiratorial history, and their involvement in the whole hackneyed drug trade, gets a little convoluted.
         The premises for their keeping the binding ties of their secret society are a bit over the top, the characters and their ties to one another not so binding, but still the action keeps us on the edge and the writing is so slick and skillful that this makes for a great beach read or car journey accompaniment.

    Read vs. listen
    For me, reading rather than listening to this particular legal thriller comes off better. Even though reader George Guidall’s interpretations of Hispanic thugs, brazen yuppies, embraceable and flawed heroes and heroines, power-hungry politicos, and sexually-enticing “escorts” is superb, they got unwieldy and I missed what motivated and drove these characters on.

    The mystery rush
    If you are looking for literary depth a la Dostoevsky’s Roskolnikov, a tale of Faulknerian proportions, deep psychological motivations and justifications, or deep cultural explorations that you’d expect from a seasoned Peace Corps observer, then you probably won’t get the rush that us thriller, mystery mavens get sitting precariously on our seats, following Margolin’s every plot twist and high intrigue in Ties That Bind.

    Tucker Clark is a consultant /writer with Masters Degrees in Psychology & Social Work with too many “formers” in his Vitae, involving media projects (MTV/VH-1 Pro-Social Programming Director), two decades of involvement in clinic management and psychiatric training, substance abuse counseling, drug education publishing and corporate trainings and outplacement seminars, famine relief training in Ethiopia in 1985;E-Commerce and internet marketing, bookseller, fiction writer. Now to help maintain his Westport, CT lifestyle, he network markets at the Director level the PrePaidLegal Services product, offering the best legal representation as monthly insurance through this nationwide 30 year old NYSE-traded company.