Reviewed by Amy Susan Wilson
If you’re looking for a fast-paced, intriguing legal thriller, The Alligator Man by James Sheehan is the novel for you. From a Florida swamp crime scene to a courtroom drama, a romance, and a murder—all connected by a who-done-it plot—The Alligator Man keeps the reader turning page after page in anticipation; how will the murder trial—and, for that matter, the romance—unfold?
The novel opens by introducing Roy Johnson, the former CEO of Dynatron, who preyed on smaller companies, swallowed them whole and spit them back out after taking gargantuan profits. He left Dynatron with over one hundred million dollars in his back pocket, before the company took a nose dive, wiping out the jobs and benefits of its numerous employees. When Johnson goes missing for two days and pieces of his clothing are discovered in alligator-infested swamp waters near his mansion, it is assumed that he was murdered. Johnson is dubbed the “Alligator Man” by a fictional New York Times columnist. Billy Fuller, a laid off Dynatron employee of over fifteen years, who has lost everything, including his wife and home, is just one of the many Dynatron victims who has a motive to murder Johnson.
Miami attorney, Kevin Wylie, learns that his father, legendary litigator Tom Wylie, whom he hasn’t spoken to in twenty-eight years, is having surgery for cancer and more than likely will not survive the year. Kevin decides to visit his estranged father in St. Albans, Florida, and to find out why his father abandoned him when he, Kevin, was a child. While visiting his father, Kevin also learns that his best boyhood friend, Billy, is the prime suspect in Johnson’s murder. Strong evidence points to Billy’s guilt, but Kevin and his father believe that Billy is innocent. The estranged father and son reunite as a dynamo legal team to fight a courtroom battle to save Billy’s life.
Sheehan paints a million possibilities for what motivated the murder: Johnson’s eye-candy widow of merely two years of marriage stands to gain millions from his death, and hundreds of angry Dynatron former employees hated Roy. Sheehan skillfully presents Billy Fuller as a prime suspect, but thickens the plot, so to speak, by suggesting other reasonable candidates who also have strong motives. Adding an eerie edge, Sheehan suggests that it is possible that the murder was an accident due to an alligator attack—such creatures have been known to lumber to the road and snatch their victims at the very place Johnson was walking the night of his disappearance and death.
Against the backdrop of the courtroom drama is a subplot of moving family drama. Kevin’s brilliant attorney father, Tom, has not had contact with Kevin since Kevin was about ten, and their reunification occurs when Kevin is a grown man and an established attorney. After his parent’s divorce, Kevin grew bitter about his father’s absence and found that financial success as a Miami criminal litigator (primarily for drug dealer clients) and a beautiful, successful fiancée did not fill the paternal void.
Reunited with his father to clear his childhood friend of a first degree murder charge, which carried the death penalty, Kevin is able to gain substance where once there was absence. His anger towards his father dissipates as he learns of his father’s reasons for not contacting him all these years. Likewise, Tom learns of Kevin’s need to experience a father-son relationship; both are nourished emotionally as a result of their legal representation of Billy.
As Tom experiences life-threatening cancer surgeries while the trial develops, he also realizes the value—and balm—of creating a substantive father-son relationship, even if it is short-lived.
The subsidiary plots of this novel are strengths, not weaknesses. As Tom’s cancer worsens and Kevin is healed of the bitterness he felt from the absence of a father figure, Kevin learns love. A predictable, yet welcome, twist—at least from this reader’s point of view—occurs when Kevin falls in love and cultivates a romantic relationship with the prosecutor at the close of Billy’s trial. Although this unlikely relationship may strike some as hokey, it demonstrates, without didacticism, that only those who have experienced healthy familial love can love fruitfully in return.
Sheehan knows how to represent the tension of a high-stakes legal matter, right down to the complex duties an attorney owes to a client, no matter the cost. Exploring with deft and nuance the ramifications of corporate greed that wreaks havoc on people’s personal and financial lives, Sheehan also shows that family bonds are intense and powerful, that there is no substitute for them, no matter how successful or influential a person may become.
This is, at its core, a story of human greed, corruption, and the yearning for familial bonds; the result is love and redemption.
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