Published by William Morrow
Review by W. R. Greer
A mystery novel with an attorney as the protagonist is nothing new. A mystery novel set in Florida that takes aim at the combination of its growing geriatric population and overuse of its resources is also not unique. Carl Hiaasen has just about created his own genre with his portrayal of bizarre events in Florida, and his last novel, Skinny Dip, is still fresh in the mind of many mystery readers. Now Claire Matturro has a Florida-based mystery novel with an attorney set at the center of the story and you might wonder if it's worth your time. Take my word for it, Skinny-Dipping is a fresh departure from your usual run-of-the-mill murder mystery.
Lilly Rose Cleary is a country girl from a red dirt Georgia family that has its own version of the craziness gene. Now she's a personal injury/malpractice attorney in Sarasota, Florida, but she's retained a bit of the family gene with an obsessive-compulsive personality. This extends to her private life where she's a health food nut and is constantly wary of sharing germs with other people, and to her professional life where she is completely thorough in her preparation for every case and even writes memos to her reports, storing all her documentation in multiple places. Yet in the zaniness that surrounds her, maybe she's the sane one.
Skinny-Dipping begins with Lilly defending a client against a kayak whiplash lawsuit. The plaintiff had already rejected a cash settlement, and Lilly knew she had the case in the bag against a claim that wasn't worth their time and energy. Her friend and ex-lover, Newly, is the plaintiff's attorney. Lilly uses her closing argument to convey her own feelings about the worthiness of the plaintiff's case:
When it was my turn to close, I stood up and walked into the center ring of the courtroom, wearing my pearl gray suit with the demure skirt a modest one inch below the knees because a jury consulting firm had statistics showing that to be the length a jury preferred, and I smiled as if I were the best friend of every person on that jury and I was so glad to see them.
And kept smiling until I giggled. Just a little.
"Really!" I said, arching my eyebrows into perfect little black exclamation points of ridicule, and I sat down.
But my tone of voice, which I had practiced in front of every experienced trial attorney in my law firm, conveyed the whole scope of my contempt for such a silly case.
Newly rose, as if to object, but then sat down.
I won, of course.
From that high point of victory, events quickly turn sour for Lilly. She's mugged outside her law office, but the mugger didn't seem to be interested in money. Then a doctor she's to defend in a malpractice suits dies under mysterious circumstances. Someone takes pot shots at Lilly and another physician client. The motive behind all these actions remains a mystery to all concerned, including the sexy police detective assigned to the case. Lilly is not even sure if the detective considers her a victim or a suspect. Other events in her life conspire to upset the delicate balance Lilly has worked so hard to maintain. Newly moves into her house without being asked, bringing his clutter, germs, and meat-eating ways with him. Lilly is not sure how to get him to move back out, or even if she wants him to. The senior partner at her firm, who thinks he's the reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson, reassigns one of his malpractice cases to her just before it's supposed to go to trial. Not only does this case look unwinnable, but has the potential to be career suicide. There's her ever efficient and competent secretary, a widow whose kids manage to constantly get hurt, her orange-haired associate who needs mentoring, another senior partner with a cocaine habit and ostentatious displays of wealth, his bubble-headed blonde girlfriend with surgically-enhanced breasts, another senior partner's environmentally active wife who fights doctors who want to put medical buildings in bird habitats, and a likeable but spineless insurance claims adjuster. Throw in a depressed Rottweiler, an angry albino ferret, and someone going through Lilly's carefully compiled notes about her cases, and you have a mystery where everybody is suspect and yet seems too lovable or incompetent to be the criminal at the same time.
At the center of these out-of-control events is Lilly, the obsessive-compulsive woman who needs to control everything about her life. Claire Matturro does a wonderful job creating a woman who is smart, determined, funny, sexy when she wants to be, with a combination of knowing what she wants and unsure that she deserves it. Lilly is a terrific guide through these events in her life, and also through the legal jungle that makes up the life of a trial attorney. Since her clients are doctors and insurance companies instead of criminals, the best defense is to stall with constant motions and continuances to the court. It's an interesting departure from the world where the defendant's life or freedom is on the line, but one where greed, often on both sides, is the dominating feature of the case. Lilly knows that the doctors she represents aren't saints, but she doesn't understand why someone is trying to kill them. Or her, for that matter.
Skinny-Dipping is a relatively short book that zips along at a nice pace. The identity of the villain remains a mystery until the end with the Rottweiler and ferret playing key roles in the story. This novel has just enough spunk, sass, and humor to accompany its engaging heroine and her law firm of quirky attorneys. Coupled with an insider's look at the legal system and the love/hate relationship with Florida, this is a mystery that's an enjoyable mix of romance, humor, and suspense. Claire Matturro has delivered a first novel that is a mystery that stands out on its own with a heroine whose flaws you'll come to enjoy.
Copyright © 2005 reviewsofbooks.com