Defense for the Dead takes legal genre into the realm of literature

Issue July 2004 By Peter Elikann

Charlestown native Jimmy Morrissey is an overweight, third-rate lawyer aged "fifty plus tax" who was only recently involved in a check-kiting scheme with client funds. The walls of his life are closing in on him, as he is freighted down with a beloved, seriously ill wife, a secretary who wants him to help keep an abusive ex-boyfriend at bay and an unexciting Boston practice he can barely keep afloat.

It is an unlikely scenario when his provincial world is upended by a visit from the FBI, which is wrapping up an investigation into the brutal serial killer named Van Gogh, named for his penchant for cutting off the ears of the numerous victims he's ritualistically murdered up and down the East Coast. When Van Gogh is discovered shot to death in a Key West hotel room, police also find a photograph of a beautiful young woman with the name and phone number of Jimmy Morrissey written on its back.

Unable to make any sense of this, Morrissey is driven to get to the bottom of the inexplicable connection. He is then plunged into a universe that seems far removed from his limited, shabby existence as a self-described "average nun-haunted Irishman."

This is the hallmark of a Michael Fredrickson novel - marginal figures living lives on the edge of existence who are plunged into situations that are way out of their league and yet, somehow, with pluck, rise to the occasion because of their own innate decency.

About the book …

Title: A Defense for the Dead

Author: Michael Fredrickson

Description: A tenacious lawyer finds himself hunting down clues that lead him to a theory that a murder attributed to a serial killer called Van Gogh is actually the work of a copycat killer.

Publisher: Forge Books

Publication Date: May 20, 2004

A Defense for the Dead is the third novel of local lawyer Fredrickson, who serves as counsel to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers.

Other trademarks of a Fredrickson novel are a prose style of such quality that it exceeds the legal novel genre and ascends into the realm of literature and ingeniously crafted plots that leave the reader chanting to himself all along the phrase an author would most like to hear, "…and then what happens?"

Although the case is considered by the feds to be closed, since the serial killer is dead, Morrissey cannot leave well enough alone. His curiosity will not abide this. Through dogged gumshoeing, he tracks the origin of the photograph to Provincetown and there finds he has dived headfirst into a world of drag queen performers and gay lifestyles that is so foreign to him it is as if he has landed on the dark side of the moon.

But bit by bit, through intelligence and persistence, Morrissey begins to piece together another theory: that a particular murder in Provincetown, attributed to Van Gogh, is actually the work of a copycat killer. So, in a way, he is attempting to prove the dead Van Gogh innocent of, at least, this one murder. Hence, the title, A Defense for the Dead.

Despite the darkness of this thematic novel, there is such a deep wit running throughout that Fredrickson can come close to be described as a humorist. While following the trail of breadcrumbs toward its inevitable denouement, Morrissey relentlessly keeps up a running comic patter. To a smoker, he comments, "there's enough tar in that cough to resurface my driveway." He refers to the effects of drinking as the "wrath of the grapes."

But, braced against the comic elements, there is an essential sadness here that brings to mind the old Irish adage that, "Nothing can stop the world from breaking your heart."

It is always a curious practice in books, television and film how many fictitious, average characters seem to have the time to take time off of work, investigate murders and succeed where the police could not. But, in Fredrickson's books, it underscores what is emerging as a continuing theme in his body of work - the down-on-his-luck character of marginal competence who, through a resolve to find his own goodness, discovers the best part of himself and is able to be more than he thought he was.

This book affords an ultra-realistic glimpse into the occasionally seedy world of small-time lawyering. The impressively elaborate plot moves quickly with such an unusual combination of humor and sadness that by its final page, you might be out of breath.

Peter Elikann is a Court TV commentator, Boston-based criminal defense attorney and former co-chair of the Massachusetts Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Council.