June Read of the Month: “The Last Trial,” by Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

In a literary landscape increasingly littered with mediocre (or worse) legal thrillers, Alabama attorney Robert Bailey did something impressive: He wrote an excellent, classic legal thriller with The Last Trial (Thomas and Mercer, May 2018). Its brilliantly complex plot portrays compelling, intriguing characters, pretrial murder and mayhem, courtroom drama, edge-of-your-chair page-turning suspense—all with subtle but accurate lessons in the law. Bailey’s world-building is so vivid, readers will swear they are in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, eating at the famous Archibald’s BBQ, or chowing down on fried green tomatoes at City Café in Northport. Bailey tops it all off with an ending readers won’t see coming until it hits them in the face. And the climax—though quite the surprise—seems perfectly inevitable.

In other words, The Last Trial is as richly satisfying as Archibald’s BBQ and as much a standout as City Café’s fried green tomatoes.

While The Last Trial is a stand-alone novel, it is intimately connected by character, setting, and plot to Bailey’s debut, The Professor, which introduced readers to Thomas Jackson McMurtrie, the main protagonist in Bailey’s three-book series. Tom is decades past his glory days on the famously winning Alabama football team of 1961, when Bear Bryant’s team finished the season undefeated with a victory over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl and as consensus national champions. Tom still thinks of “The Bear’s” leadership in times of stress and draws strength from those memories as he faces health issues and seemingly unbeatable odds on both personal and professional levels.

Along with his declining health, Tom’s age might make him an unconventional protagonist in a legal thriller—especially given Hollywood’s penchant for casting youthful, sexy actors as the leading attorneys in legal thrillers-turned-movies. Yet, in other ways, Tom is the ideal leading man—for one thing, his skills and instincts as a trial attorney are exactly what the criminal defendant in The Last Trial needs. His attachment to and interactions with his two grandchildren reveal a warm, wise humanity reminiscent of Atticus Finch. Like Atticus, Tom has a strong moral center that will carry him through many a danger—including the grave risks brought about by his decision to represent a convicted prostitute in the capital murder case at the center of The Last Trial.

The Last Trial opens when a student from The University of Alabama witnesses a murder across the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa. She has compelling reasons not to be forthcoming about what she saw. Though this student might be the only eye-witness, she is not the only person to withhold critical evidence in the investigation. Law enforcement personnel soon discover the victim is Jack Willistone, who was released from prison only 36-hours before his murder.

Not long after Jack’s body is discovered, Tom finds Laurie Ann, a fourteen-year-old girl complete with surly attitude, waiting for him on his office steps. She wants him to defend her mother—Wilma Newton—who has been charged with capital murder in Jack’s shooting death. Moved by Laurie Ann’s plea, Tom reluctantly agrees to meet with Wilma. In short order, Tom learns that Wilma had motive, means, and opportunity. Yet he believes she is innocent, framed by someone desperate enough and smart enough to close off all avenues of escape for Wilma. Complicating his decision whether to represent Wilma, Tom will have to go up against a top-notch prosecutor, a former student and friend, if he defends Wilma.

With all odds stacked profoundly against him, Tom takes the case on a pro bono basis. He believes this will be his last trial, and that he will probably have to try it alone because his partner, Rick Drake, is on leave, and his best friend Bocephus Haynes (of Bailey’s second novel, Between Black and White) has had his law license suspended. While there are no shortages of people who wanted Jack Willistone dead, he was shot with Wilma’s gun after they had a public fight in which she threatened to kill him—and only her fingerprints are on the murder weapon.

For fans of The Professor, the names Wilma Newton and Jack Willistone will ring familiar. In fact, The Last Trial is very much the next chapter of what Bailey started in The Professor. In Bailey’s debut, Jack owned the trucking company where Wilma’s husband worked as a driver. After a fiery and deadly crash which left Wilma a widow, Tom sued Jack’s trucking company on behalf of the other family killed in the accident. The company had a consistent, deliberate pattern of forcing its truckers to speed to clock more miles and increase profits. Wilma was to be a key witness, but things went awry in a brutal way for her.

Two years later, in The Last Trial, Jack is just out of prison—as is Wilma. The shared past of Jack, Wilma, and Tom adds suspense and a layer of complexity that strengthens the story.

While readers might benefit from reading The Professor first, it’s not necessary for a full understanding of The Last Trial as Bailey does an admirable job of telling the backstories to establish conflicts and motives.

As in The Professor and Between Black and White, the stakes in The Last Trial go well beyond money—though a three-million dollar life insurance policy drives the plot. Both Jack’s current wife at the time of his death and his ex-wife naturally want the proceeds. Jack’s father-in-law, a notorious outlaw, has his finger in the pie as well. While there is no shortage of people with motives, the prosecution paints a convincing portrait of Wilma as the vengeful murderer.

The plot is undeniably intense and fast moving, yet that alone isn’t what makes The Last Trial so rich and compelling. Bailey weaves together memorable characters—both good and evil and somewhere in-between—with a deftness that makes them seem real. He writes clear, crisp sentences that narrate the story in a natural, unpretentious style. And, rather than proclaiming the attributes of his characters, he reveals them through suggestive details. Of one character, he writes, “Even on a ninety-degree day in June, he still wore his [suit] jacket.”

Ever since Scott Turow energized legal thrillers with Presumed Innocent, lawyers and non-lawyers alike have penned many courtroom dramas. Perhaps John Grisham is the front-runner in the genre, but he must be looking over his shoulder as the trio of books in this series clearly marks Robert Bailey as one of the best legal thriller writers out there.

Despite the somber title of The Last Trial, Tom will be back. Bailey’s publisher, Thomas and Mercer, and his agent, Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency, recently announced a new two-book deal. Tom, Bo, and Rick will return for a final time in the spring of 2019, in The Reckoning, and Bailey will start a new series after that. A smart move, given the well-deserved commercial and critical success of this series.

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