“The Wrong Side,” by Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey

Reviewed by Claire Matturro

The Wrong Side (Thomas and Mercer 2021) is very much a Robert Bailey legal thriller—which is to say it is a riveting book full of intrigue, last ditch chances, compelling characters, an enthralling, well-paced energetic story line, and a plot twist at the end readers won’t see coming. Bailey, as an experienced trial attorney, knows exactly how to set the stage for the court room drama with tension and accuracy.

Yet, it is also a bit of a different kind of book for Bailey, an award-winning best-selling author of five prior legal thrillers. The Wrong Side has a direct, lineal plot without the complicated apparently divergent developments (which of course converge in the end) found in Bailey’s prior books, and it is relatively tame in terms of violence. In some ways, it pays homage to To Kill a Mockingbird with its moments of sheer tenderness, its small-town setting, and its focus on a widowed father with two offspring to care for and protect—and with the dark shadow of racial discord ever prevalent in the plot. But without doubt, it is a Bailey classic, a winning combination of plot-driven and character-driven can’t-put-it-down, page-turning drama with a strong moral center, all written in clear, robust prose. There’s a reason the prestigious Publishers’ Weekly in a starred review calls it an “exceptional sequel.” Because it is.

The main character is an African American lawyer in Pulaski, Tennessee, by the name of Bocephus Hayes. Known as Bo, he is a former football hero turned lawyer, who is raising his son and daughter alone after the death of his wife. Bo has been a regular in Bailey’s prior books and was the star of Legacy of Lies (Thomas and Mercer 2020), which introduced the Bocephus series. In The Wrong Side, Bo shines as a complicated and conflicted man, torn between ambition, loving and protecting his children, and his intense desire for justice. He is a man who very much wants to do the right thing, and whose son compares him to Atticus Finch. But he is also a man who functions at the sharp edge of grief, even guilt, over the murder of his late wife. An old high school rival accuses him of wanting only fame, glory and desire to win—and Bo has moments in which he wonders if that’s true.

While Bo dominates the book, his client, Odell Champagne, holds his own in the scenes he shares with Bo as a high school senior with a past, a drunk for a mother, and a potential star career ahead of him as an outstanding football player. Most people in Pulaski adore Odell when the story opens because they love football and Odell keeps the local team winning. But that “everybody loves a winner” vibe will quickly change. The town’s hostility to Odell even threatens to break open into violence.

Odell is not the only teen star in the small town because another high school senior is on the brink of major stardom as a singer. Brittany Cruther was a runner up on “America’s Got Talent” and is poised to sign a contract with a major record label. But the record company only wants her as a solo. To achieve her dreams, Brittany has to leave behind her loyal band known as Fizz, as well as her friend and once-time manager Cassie Dugan.

Cassie was once the lead singer in the band and her brother Ian plays a sizzling electric guitar, but Cassie accepted she didn’t have the “it” to become a major star, and stepped aside for Brittany. Even Ian recognizes that for all his talent, he’d never make it big without the talented Brittany.

In order to sign that solo contract, Brittany also has to leave behind her boyfriend—Odell.

Putting her ambition ahead of the others, on the eve of a big game, Brittany breaks up with Odell with a note. She has the decency to tell Cassie in person, but can’t face her fellow band members or Odell. Having fallen under the control of Michael Zannick, a manipulative, wealthy man who appears in a prominent role in Legacy of Lies, Brittany is prepared to chase fame at the expense of those she loves.

Unfortunately, all her dreams of success as a solo singer end in the back of a school bus when someone smashed a beer bottle across her head and kills her the night after Odell’s big football victory.

Odell, who had been crushed by the break-up and had been heard to say threatening things about Brittany, is the logical suspect. Especially as he is found, nearly comatose, near Brittany’s body, with the murder weapon close by, and Brittany’s hoodie clutched in his hands. He is taken to jail as a person of interest but not yet formally charged.

Odell, hung-over and emotionally over-wrought, asks for Bo. As Odell is Bo’s son’s good friend and he has worked for Bo, naturally Bo goes to see him in jail. Odell proclaims his innocence and asks Bo to defend him if he is charged.

Bo wrestles with this request for a long time, knowing it will put his children in a difficult situation as the community has already condemned Odell, and turned against him. Bo’s moral dilemma is further complicated because he knows Brittany and her parents and is a member of their same church. He does not know how he can face them if he agrees to defend the man accused of killing their much-loved daughter.

There is also the possibility that Odell is guilty. And the fact Bo doesn’t see any viable defense.

However, after a protracted debate with himself, when his son asks him to represent Odell after he is charged with first degree murder, Bo agrees.

Everything is quickly stacked against Odell and Bo, which is, of course, where the great tension often lies in a legal thriller. There are few if any other viable candidates for the real killer. Once more, Bo wonders if he is representing a killer.

The best legal thrillers—and The Wrong Side clearly qualifies—step outside the basic formula at the same time they honor that blueprint. That is, the lawyer who is the main character needs to have something more at risk than winning or losing the trial. He or she needs to be intimately involved in such a way that they could be destroyed or at least unalterably changed. And all the cards in the deck need to appear stacked against any chance of actually winning the case. Within that formula, To Kill a Mockingbird might well be considered America’s first great legal thriller.

In creating The Wrong Side, Bailey respects that basic structure. At the same time, he moves beyond formula with his carefully crafted and nuanced characterizations of the main players, relevant social themes, and a close examination not just of his people, but of a town jinxed by its history. Pulaski, Tennessee, was the birthplace of the KKK and even in Bo’s life span, Klan activities have damaged both the community and Bo himself. It’s as if Bo’s hometown is haunted, and those ghosts have a way of playing into the plot.

In the story, Bo is asked to represent an African American high school senior with a troubled past, a drunk for his only parent, and a potentially star-making career ahead of him as a football player. Odell Champagne is a local hero. Most of the town adores him because his skills on the football field make the town a winner. And everybody loves a winner. Yet, that lofty status Odell enjoys will quickly fall away as he becomes the town’s hated pariah—that kind that inspires mob violence.

Odell has been accused of murdering his girlfriend. But that girlfriend is not just anybody—she’s an even bigger star in the town than Odell. As a rising popstar phenom and gifted singer who placed well in “America’s Got Talent,” Brittany Crutcher had owned the stage as she led her band, Fizz, to increasing popularity. With one hit song, she is on the brink of major stardom when a prestigious record company offers her a contract. The problem, though, is the record label only wants to sign her—not her band. Brittany is apparently willing to leave behind her band, as well as her one-time manager and close friend Cassie Dungan—and Odell.

On the night of a big game, Brittany breaks up with Odell through a note. She tells Cassie in person she is leaving town and abandoning the band, but at the last minute she wavers. Or does she?

Brittany is found murdered in the back of an old school bus, and a nearly comatose Odell is found nearby, clutching her bloody hoodie in his hands. The murder weapon is only a few feet away. Naturally, he becomes the immediate suspect.

Odell and Bo know each other as Odell is Bo’s son’s good friend. He also works for Bo on weekends. But when Odell asks Bo to represent him, Bo hesitates. Representing Odell will put Bo on the wrong side of the community, including the church both Bo and Brittany’s parents attend. It will also put his children at risk.

And then, there’s the fact that all the evidence points at Odell, and Bo sees no viable defense. At certain moments, he even wonders if Odell did kill Brittany.

Bo also knows that “regardless of how you sliced it, race would again be at the forefront of another tragedy in Giles County. Could a Black man get a fair trial in Pulaski?”

The situation is even more complicated since the victim was also a Black woman: “Bo knew that, historically, the lives of Black women had been undervalued in the legal system.” But Brittany had also been a celebrity, “which was the final and perhaps largest complication of all.”

A female chief deputy, in a confrontation with Bo, sums it up: “He’s a Black kid on trial for murder in Pulaski, and the circumstantial evidence is staggering. You know how this story ends.”

Within these plot lines, Bailey weaves a strong tale, told with suspense and suspicion, in which his characters struggle with loss and questions of fairness and justice. The line between justice and revenge becomes murky, especially for Brittany’s father who has lost more than he can bear. All the major characters have something they value greatly at risk, and these conflicts will change them. At the edge of the story, but never forgotten, lurks the troubled history of Pulaski—and Bo’s own uneasy part in that history.

It’s a great, thoughtful, timely, and satisfying story. As Publisher’s Weekly says, The Wrong Side is “exceptional.”

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