I am a huge fan of courtroom dramas. I love the pace, the thrills and the methodical analysis of evidence; I often find myself trying to solve a case as it progresses, wishing myself in a juror’s position as I battle with the senses of right and wrong, justice and injustice propounded as the truth is revealed. I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised as I read Michael Biehl’s A Thoroughly Bad Individual: having no real prior knowledge as to what the book would entail, I was excited when the novel took an unexpected turn into the muddy territory of the crime genre, throwing the reader into the chaos of the courtroom. What began as a sharp study of character and an examination of what makes a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ soon became a fast-paced and quick-witted crime novel, full of mystery, deception and unreliable characters.
The novel centers around the character of Stan Flory: once a high-powered lawyer, a scandal in his past forces him to lose just about everything, and when the reader is first introduced to Stan, he is trawling the beaches around his Florida home with his metal detector, whom he affectionately nicknames Matilda. The reader is immediately thrust into Stan’s world: without warning, we are almost uncomfortably close to a man who, in a Holden Caulfield-esque manner, seems reluctant to share much of his story. While this kind of narration can sometimes alienate a reader, to me it simply added more intrigue. I found myself desperately wanting to know more about Stan, his background, and the series of hinted-at misfortunes leading to his downfall. When Stan finds a gold Rolex watch discarded on the shore, he thinks his luck has turned: that is, until he reads the inscription on the back. The discovery throws Stan’s world into disorder, and before he knows it, he is back practising law: this time as a criminal lawyer, defending his best friend against the charge of patricide.
So begins a wild and meandering journey as Stan confronts his past and starts to grapple with his own senses of right and wrong in order to help his friend and ultimately solve the murder case. There is a lot going on in this novel: ultimately, I feel it is an acute study of the virtues and flaws inherent in an individual, and the ways in which these qualities complement or counterbalance one another. The way that the characters interweave and present Stan (and in turn, the reader) with such differing, complex traits and vices is compounded by the fast-paced crime narrative, with interesting results.
I particularly enjoyed the character of Bud, Stan’s hopeless, alcohol-addled best friend and client: it is Bud that is charged with the murder of his billionaire father. While Bud manages to disgust and baffle both Stan and the reader, there is something about him which is quite pathetic, and in a way loveable: I felt as though his character was extremely well-developed. Stan was also an interesting protagonist: it often felt as though his narration was not entirely reliable, which in a crime novel throws up all sorts of fascinating questions. At times I found myself preferring Bud to Stan, whose cynicism and self-pity is comical at face value but frustrating as one progresses. This idea of mistrust and deception is found underlying throughout the novel: a character is at once likeable and despicable, giving the book many layers.
One element of the novel which I felt was lacking was the portrayal of Monica, the love interest for both Bud and Stan. I felt as though Monica’s function was essentially as an object of desire and interest, like the shiny gold watch. Her relationship with Stan was fairly weak; the way Stan fawns over her even from the moment he meets her made me wince at times. I don’t read a lot of ‘macho’ crime novels purely because I dislike the ‘damaged, interesting other woman’ trope, and I find unnecessary sexualisation slightly embarrasing. Monica serves as a disruptive spanner in the works for Stan’s relationships: particularly, his relationship with his wife, and the friend-lawyer role he plays in relation to Bud. This certainly works in that it forces the reader to question Stan’s morality: but that is really about as far as it goes. Overall, Monica and her function as sex object detracted from what I felt was an otherwise sound and well-written novel.
Aside from this slightly disappointing character, if it’s a solid crime page-turner you’re after, Biehl’s novel will absolutely fit the bill. It’s a fairly quick read, darkly funny in places and has some fantastic courtroom scenes that had me on the edge of my seat. It is, however, more than just a typical murder mystery: there are some highly interesting facets within the characters that really make the reader question their own sense of morality and justice. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a gripping and thought-provoking summer read.
By Michael Biehl
How far would you go to help a friend who was in deep trouble on a crooked business deal?
Stan Flory, a successful corporate attorney, went too far, and got caught up in a scandal. He ended up as a beachcomber in Sarasota, Florida.
Now, years later, Stan’s friend, Bud Richter, is back, asking for another favor–he wants Stan to defend him against a murder charge. When Stan reluctantly agrees, he finds himself outgunned by the prosecution, disturbed by Bud’s dark family secrets, and overwhelmed by the allure of Bud’s mercurial wife. To save Bud’s life, Stan must dig deep into his own legal, physical, and moral strengths, and improvise an astonishing defense.