“Relative Justice,” by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Best-selling Christian author Robert Whitlow writes a sensitive, thoughtful, and ultimately satisfying legal thriller with his newest novel, Relative Justice (Thomas Nelson, 2022). Relative Justice is sure to please readers who enjoy more emphasis on characters and family than on thriller-style action. Think Jan Karon meets Robert Bailey, with more of the warm family narratives Karon is famed for writing than the edge-of-your seat action and suspense of a Bailey legal thriller. This is not to say hard-core legal thriller fans won’t find plenty to admire in Whitlow’s novel—he obviously knows his way around the law and law firms, and the underlying legal case is well presented in all its intricacies. But the heart of the novel lies with the Cobb family, and the story of how a small father-and-son law firm cares for its clients while the attorneys are facing their own personal challenges.

Whitlow, a University of Georgia School of Law graduate and a Christy Award Winner for Contemporary Fiction, stays keenly on track with the Christian fiction conventions of no graphic violence, no rampant alcoholism or illegal drug use, spouses who do not cheat, and people who pray and seek God’s intervention on a day-to-day basis. These attributes of the novel are not mentioned as drawbacks to the book but as a positive since these qualities help generate the fulfilling satisfaction found in reading this story. Redemption is also a key theme, as is finding salvation.

With its direct, crisp writing and declarative sentences, Relative Justice is a smooth read. Set in Wilmington, North Carolina, the novel has lush descriptive scenes and Whitlow excels at world-building in the book. While a lot of characters are introduced in the beginning, they are well delineated with physical descriptions and a clear indication of their role. Their personalities, which are fully developed as the story advances, are skillfully hinted at early on. For example, Carton Cobb, the much loved and well-respected patriarch of the family and founding law partner of Cobb and Cobb, is shown praying loudly in a restaurant, in keeping with his bold personality and missionary zeal.

The Cobbs of Cobb and Cobb also include Carter’s older son David, who is more counselor than litigator in his role as an attorney. For example, in an introductory scene, rather than pursue legal remedies for members of a feuding family business, he conducts a therapy session initiated by a biblical verse. David not only consults God when he needs advice, but is wise enough to consult with his wife Nan. Their two young children, talented artist daughter and active fisherman son, add considerable charm to the story without adding any negative conflict or drama.

The youngest son of Carter Cobb, Robbie, had in the past taken the role of prodigal son, but marriage to the right woman and finding God in his life has turned him around. He is now a productive social worker who works with disadvantaged kids.

Katelyn Cobb, Robbie’s wife, is an ambitious, hard-working lawyer in a powerful, prestigious law firm in Washington, D.C. She believes an offer of a transfer to the firm’s busy Chicago office puts her firmly on the path to the partnership she desired, only to crash into the glass ceiling. That, plus another big change in her personal situation, leads to her re-evaluating her goals—both career and lifestyle.

Early on, readers learn that Carter has suffered a heart attack in the past, so it is no surprise when he suffers another health crisis which ushers in the domestic drama which, at least initially, takes precedence over the unfolding legal drama. While the stage for the legal drama—a patent infringement lawsuit involving a stolen pharmaceutical formula—is set in place early on, the drug piracy case does not fully evolve into a strong plot aspect until the second half of the book.


Emerson Chappelle, a chemist and academic with a gambling addiction, is introduced as a conflicted character in the prologue. While far from an admirable character—he did steal a formula from an herbalist and then patent it as his own—Chappelle is not inherently evil. Certainly, he is not as dangerous or flawed as the bookie and the loan shark he does business with on a regular basis. Faced with enormous gambling debts, he sells his stolen formula to a large pharmaceutical company and contracts to share his profits with the loan shark he is heavily in debt to. Thus, he invites into his life a criminal syndicate that plays hard ball and will come to endanger more people than just Chappelle.

Zeke Caldwell, one of the most interesting characters, is a naturalist and herbalist who has been concocting home remedies from local plants. He is also a long-time friend of Carter’s. Naturally, when Zeke discovers that a large pharmaceutical company is marketing a drug that seems far too similar to Zeke’s own anti-nausea product, he seeks out help from Cobb and Cobb.

With his father in the hospital, David knows he can’t handle such an expensive and complex lawsuit as the one Zeke’s claim would involve. The high costs of pursuing a patent infringement case are explained to Zeke, who lacks the funds. Whether Cobb and Cobb can finance the experts and chemical analysis necessary to pursue the claim is an important dilemma for David. He turns to his sister-in-law, who has handled patent infringement cases for her large firm before, though she has never been the primary attorney on such a case, nor has she litigated a pharmaceutical patent case. Thus, in classic legal thriller form, Cobb and Cobb and their client Zeke are clearly the underdogs. Against them is not only a large, well-funded and hard-fighting pharmaceutical company, but a crime syndicate with an interest in the proceeds from the stolen formula.

Whether Katelyn will help, or how she might do so, is an important question. Even as she and David discuss matters, Katelyn’s hard-driving ways soon conflict with David’s laid-back style. As Katelyn and David approach the pending lawsuit from radically different perspectives, Chappelle’s crime syndicate business partners set the stage for what they perceive as a quick way out of the situation. They prefer violence to a courtroom.

On the domestic front, some of the story is predictable but that rather adds to the comfort and enjoyment of reading this book, as with a Jan Karon novel. Readers know that Katelyn will not double cross David, none of the spouses will cheat, and the kids won’t run off and become meth heads. But on the legal end, treachery and danger are out of the Cobbs’ control, just as Katelynn’s potential partnership is out of her control. These matters, however, are not outside of God’s control, the novel suggests. A rich and compelling story of family, faith, and friendship with just the right dose of legal thriller, Relative Justice is a winner.

Whitlow is the author of more than twenty prior books set the South. He is from Georgia and still practices law as well as writes novels.

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