Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro
Move over, John Grisham, there’s a new kid on the legal thriller playing field.
Robert Bailey, an Alabama trial attorney and graduate of The University of Alabama School of Law, returns the kickoff for a 100 yard touchdown with his debut novel, The Professor. The football reference is apropos as the protagonist of The Professor was a member of Alabama’s famous 1961 National Champion football team, and the book opens with a guest appearance by venerated Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. Alabama’s 1961 national championship was the first of the six that Bear Bryant would win as head coach of the Crimson Tide, and the fighting spirit of that 1961 team resounds throughout the novel.
But one does not need to be a football fan or even a fan of legal thrillers to enjoy Bailey’s book as its writing is smooth, captivating and, in all the right places, emotionally moving—all the more impressive in that Bailey only took a single creative writing class while an undergraduate at Davidson College. According to Bailey, “We wrote four short stories, and the critiques I received were mostly positive. It was definitely a confidence builder and a whole lot of fun.”
How did he go from taking just one creative writing class to writing a riveting debut of a legal thriller?
In law school, Bailey served on the law review, an honor generally reserved for those who can write well. Yet there is a football field of difference in writing an analytical, academic, footnoted and blue-booked law review article and composing an edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.
The bridge, then, between writing like a lawyer and writing like a top-drawer novelist was part inspiration, part studying other novels, and part the hard work of rewriting, redrafting, and revising. Bailey’s inspiration came from growing up in Alabama as a Bear Bryant fan and from wanting to write about a brash young “bull-in-a-china-shop” new attorney—a character whose experiences resemble Bailey’s own days straight out of law school. As for studying other legal thrillers and books, Bailey has said, “Yes, I have learned a lot from reading other novels. Also, Stephen King’s instructional memoir, On Writing, was a big influence and inspiration.” And as for the hard work of revision and rewriting—it took Bailey eight years to finish The Professor, though he was practicing law, trying cases, and raising a family at the same time.
Bailey, a history major and a Huntsville, Alabama, native, is quite the Bear Bryant fan and a football historian. These personal interests enrich The Professor and play into Bailey’s creation of the lead character, Professor Thomas Jackson McMurtrie.
In some ways McMurtrie, the protagonist, is an unusual leading man. For one thing, he is 68 and his glory days on the famous Alabama football team of 1961 are long behind him. He faces serious health issues, mourns his late wife, and has been unfairly manipulated out of his position as an evidence professor at the University of Alabama School of Law into an unwanted early retirement. One of his former students—and a man he had called a friend—was complicit in the scheme to push him out as a law professor, and the betrayal wounds McMurtrie deeply.
Yet, in other ways, McMurtrie is the ideal leading man—for one thing his skills and instincts as a trial attorney form the perfect balance to his headstrong, volatile former student, Rick Drake, when they take on a trucking company in a wrongful-death case. McMurtrie, named after Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, epitomizes what we would want in both a leading man and a lawyer—he is somewhat of a modern Atticus Finch, albeit with some different demons. Bailey writes in his author’s notes that he wanted to create a character that was a “man of exceptional integrity, strength, and class.” This Bailey has done.
Rick Drake, the lawyer version of a yin to McMurtrie’s yang, is more of what readers might expect in legal thrillers. A young lawyer, brash, over his head, yet passionate about his client and the case, Drake has more gumption and zeal than skills. He needs the experience and even temperament of McMurtrie. Drake also needs an expert in evidence, and McMurtrie literally wrote the textbook on evidence law in Alabama.
But here’s the rub: Drake and McMurtrie have a turbulent history. Drake was McMurtrie’s law student and the two came to blows—literally—after Drake hotheadedly dashed his trial advocate team’s chances of winning a national trial competition. McMurtrie was the team’s coach. After a video of the angry clash between the professor and the student was posted on YouTube, a conniving new dean at the law school used the incident as part of his plan to push McMurtrie out of his tenured position.
So, let’s just say Drake and McMurtrie are not best friends.
Yet each man knows the value of the other. Drake has the vigor McMurtrie fears is waning in himself. And McMurtrie has decades of knowledge and the calm, deliberate skills Drake lacks.
Thus, out of these conflicts and contrasting personalities, the characters of McMurtrie and Drake form an integral part of what makes The Professor work so well. This is a book about people, vividly drawn and fully realized, overcoming obstacles within themselves—as well as obstacles placed in their way by unscrupulous others.
Superb writing and engaging protagonists, though, are not the only things that make this debut so compelling. This is a bam-bam-bam book as far as plot goes, with plenty of action in and out of the courtroom. In the opening chapters, there is a horrific and fiery automobile crash, betrayal, suicide, murder, blackmail and enough suspense to keep the reader turning pages all night. There’s a good reason Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump and another Alabama writer, calls The Professor “[g]ripping from the first page to the last.”
In a tightly woven plot that unfolds naturally in well-paced scenes, McMurtrie refers a former girlfriend (from the days before his marriage) to Drake for representation in a wrongful-death action after her granddaughter, daughter and son-in-law slam into a speeding eighteen-wheeler and die. McMurtrie recommends that she retain Drake in part because Drake grew up in the town where the lawsuit will be tried and McMurtrie believes in the home-court advantage. Yet McMurtrie also believes Drake can win the case—and he wants to help the struggling lawyer.
The defendant trucking company’s owner is an unscrupulous yet tough adversary who has the power to pervert the quest for hard evidence. Drake and McMurtrie have to prove in a court of law what they know is true—the trucking company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed in order to clock more miles and make more money for the company. Yet the trucking company’s owner doesn’t play by any rules, which gives him an apparent upper hand in disposing of key witnesses and the paper trail of evidence. Compounding the pressure on Drake and McMurtrie, the trucking company’s attorney is none other than McMurtrie’s former friend who betrayed him and helped oust him from his teaching career.
The stakes go beyond money. The plaintiff wants the world to know the truth about the accident—that her family died because of a concerted, greedy corporate plan that turned its eighteen-wheelers into dangerous weapons.
McMurtrie wants to avenge himself against his former friend and later betrayer, and he wants to help his former girlfriend. Not incidentally, he hopes to prove that even at 68, “The old bull still has a little gas in the tank.” And, maybe, he hopes to get his job as a law professor back. He definitely wants to help Drake and set matters right between them.
Yet in some ways, Drake is the one who has the most at stake. The YouTube of his shoving contest with McMurtrie painted him as an uncontrollable hothead and cost him his position at a big law firm. He is barely earning his rent as a solo practitioner. He questions himself. If Drake is going to survive as an attorney, he needs a courtroom victory. But beyond building his career, he needs to get right in his own head and prove he is capable of being a winning trial attorney—one who will not blow up and ruin the case as he did during the law school trial team competition. Drake is a young man, not fully formed as a man or an attorney, and this trial will make or break his maturation.
The trial scenes resonate with realism. Naturally so, given that the author is a practicing attorney and a shareholder with the law firm of Lanier Ford in Huntsville. Interestingly enough, the author defends—among others—trucking companies. Similar to his character Drake, Bailey was a winner in trial advocacy competitions while in law school.
The Professor introduces the character of Bocephus Haynes, McMurtrie’s favorite former student. Bocephus plays an important yet secondary role in the story as ally and emotional support, but he is set to return in a leading role in the sequel, Between Black and White. A third manuscript, now in the works, will take Drake and McMurtrie back to Tuscaloosa, and Drake’s story line and growth as a character will be explored further and in more detail.
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