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Judgment by Joseph Finder

Published by Dutton on January 29, 2019

Judge Juliana Brody cheats on her husband at a legal conference with a fellow named Matias Sanchez. They agree it will be a one-night fling. Back in Boston, Brody is presiding over a sexual harassment case that a woman brought against a ride-sharing company. On her first day back in court, a new lawyer is added to the company’s defense team. Yes, it’s Sanchez, who wants rulings in the harassment case to favor the defendant and threatens publication of salacious videos if the judge doesn’t cooperate. In particular, the defense wants her to dismiss the case so it doesn’t need to disclose a damaging document.

The premise is thin. Rather than blackmailing the judge, the corporation could easily follow the standard corporate procedure of pretending the document doesn’t exist. Or it could give the former employee an apology, an admission of wrongdoing, and a ton of money to settle the case to keep the document from coming to light. The availability of less risky options makes the blackmail threat seems awfully contrived.

Brody’s husband is a law professor who may or may not have dallied with one of his students a few years earlier, but Brody doesn’t want to reveal her indiscretion and potentially ruin her marriage. She’s even more concerned about damaging her career, which seems destined to land her on a higher court. Sex tapes may not bother post-Trump politicians, but judges tend to be stuffy about public disclosures of their private shenanigans, particularly when they shenanigan with a lawyer who is appearing before the judge.

Another judge refers Brody to a private investigator who helps her smoke out the blackmailer. In the tradition of conspiracy thrillers, Brody and the investigator peel back layers and discover that the conspiracy is vast. The novel then moves in the customary direction of conspiracy thrillers, with sinister figures appearing every now and then to threaten Brody and thwart her attempts to unmask the conspirator, sometimes by committing or attempting murder. As usual, conspirators or their sympathizers seem to have infiltrated various corners of government, leaving Brody uncertain whether there is anyone left in the world she can trust.

Apart from the contrived premise, Joseph Finder wields the formula capably. Unfortunately, I found it hard to care much about Brody. She made her bed and decided not to lie on it or to own her mistakes. Her desire to fight back against the blackmail is understandable, but her utter contempt for the law in her approach to saving her career is not. I appreciate that Finder has another character saying to Brody “Do you really think the law is for other people?” A good many people in power think exactly that, and Brody’s willingness to put her career above her principles is less than endearing.

The novel is timely in its focus on Russians who are able to influence American policy. It is pointed in its criticism of the government’s sudden lack of interest in enforcing sanctions against Russian entities. The story imagines that Putin uses strawmen to own a bunch of businesses around the world, which doesn’t take much imagination. Finder’s niche in the thriller market is the world of finance, and his knowledge of financial misconduct adds credibility to the plot, even if the blackmail scheme didn’t strike me as being credible at all.

The story doesn’t create much tension and its resolution is much too easy. But the novel worked for me because, while I didn’t care much about Brody, I cared a great deal about her son, a cancer survivor who rebels against his mother’s rigidity, and her husband, whose is better than his wife at prioritizing things that are truly important. Breaking the rules at least gives Brody a chance to think about whether living a perfect life and pursuing a perfect career track is really as important as she has always believed, although I’m not sure she actually internalizes the lesson. Judgment is a flawed thriller but it has sufficient entertainment value to warrant a lukewarm recommendation.


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