Valerie Solara insists that she is innocent. Charged with murdering one of her two best friends, Amanda Miller, by poisoning Amanda’s food, Valerie’s trial is just beginning. But Martin Bristol, a renowned local criminal defense attorney who is lead counsel on the case, has taken ill. His granddaughter and partner, Maggie, has asked Izzy McNeil, her best friend, to assist.
Izzy is a civil litigator, just getting back to work after a tumultuous year. She was a reporter and commentator for a legal network until she was named as a “person of interest” during the investigation into the murder of one of her colleagues. And just two months before their wedding, her fiancee, Sam Hollings, vanished. Now Izzy has a new boyfriend several years her junior, Theo, and she’s happy to finally be getting back to work in a courtroom. But Izzy is a civil litigator, not a criminal defense attorney, and she does not yet understand the nuances and protocols of criminal defense work.
One of the tenets Izzy struggles with is the notion that a criminal defense attorney does not need to know — and frequently does not want to know — whether his/her client is guilty. After all, as Maggie explains, it is their job to see that Valerie gets the fair and impartial trial to which she is Constitutionally entitled. A criminal defense attorney must always bear in mind that the prosecution bears the burden of demonstrating the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. So long as an attorney does not put a client on the stand knowing that the client is going to offer perjured testimony, the real question of guilt or innocence is usually moot.
But as the trial proceeds and more information about Valerie’s background, her daughter, Lila, and Zavy, the victim’s husband, comes to light, the more uneasy Izzy becomes. In addition to Sam, Izzy’s father, long presumed dead, has also re-entered her life recently. Now she has convinced him to put his experience as a profiler to work by teaming up with Mayburn, a private investigator, to help with Valerie’s defense.
Claim of Innocence is a tautly constructed, fast-paced legal thriller that will keep readers guessing about Valerie Solara’s innocence until the very end. Author Laura Caldwell is a litigator turned law professor who ensures that both the substantive and procedural aspects of the criminal case at the heart of the drama are accurately portrayed. Izzy’s professional challenges are juxtaposed against her personal turmoil about her relationships with Sam and Theo. Adding to her consternation are her conflicted feelings about her father and the impact his return is having upon her mother, who is remarried to Spence. The result being a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable story.
Izzy is a bigger-than-life character who has experienced some bigger-than-life problems over the course of the past year-and-a-half. She and Sam were very happy, but as happens with many couples, their impending wedding preparations began overshadowing their relationship. Caldwell turns a stereotype on its ear: It was Izzy who was uncomfortable with the large wedding Sam desired. And for reasons she only later discovered, Sam disappeared two months before the ceremony. When he returned, they attempted to put their life together back on track, but could not. So they parted and Izzy has been seeing handsome young entrepreneur Theo. But Sam has reconnected with Izzy, forcing her to reevaluate her choices.
Further complicating her life is her father’s sudden reappearance after many years. Izzy, her mother, and brother all believed he was dead and, in fact, her mother, who has a long history of depression, found happiness with and married Spence. Learning that her father has been watching over her from a distance for quite some time initially unnerves Izzy and, in combination with Sam’s announcement, forces Izzy to examine the way she interacts with the men in her life. It also changes her mother and causes Spence consternation.
Izzy is earnest and likable, her devotion to the law never in question. Like any good litigator, she has developed impeccable instincts about both people and legal theories. Her latest adventures test both as she struggles to adapt to criminal defense practice, taking cues from her seasoned friend, Maggie. Izzy is convinced that there is more to Valerie’s claim of innocence than is readily apparent and determined to solve the mystery of Amanda’s murder, even though Maggie insists that the truth is not what they need to focus on. Because Izzy is so naturally inquisitive and committed to knowing whether she is defending a woman who actually committed murder, she enlists her father and Mayburn to assist her. And what she learns is fascinating.
Caldwell alternates her narration between Izzy’s first-person account of her experiences and third-person descriptions of unfolding plot developments. It is a highly effective technique that enhances reader interest in the various mysteries. Izzy is surrounded by an intriguing cast of supporting characters, including Martin Bristol, a man who has enjoyed a brilliant legal career but has suddenly been transformed from a vibrant, sharp-witted elder statesman of the courtroom to a feeble, befuddled old man. Is age to blame or is there more to the sudden crisis that has forced Martin to step down from trying Valerie’s case? And what will become of Spence and his marriage to Izzy’s mother? Is her sudden sense of empowerment a threat to the happy status quo they have enjoyed for so long?
Of course, the two centerpieces of the story — Izzy’s romance with Sam and the question of Valerie’s guilt or innocence — keep readers focused until all of the shocking details are revealed. In Claim of Innocence, Caldwell deftly balances the professional and personal entanglements of her protagonist, inserting surprising plot twists and the revelation of dark secrets. Claim of Innocence is actually Izzy McNeil’s fourth appearance in a Caldwell novel. Her trilogy, Red Hot Lies, Red Blooded Murder, and Red, White and Dead, also feature Izzy McNeil. Claim of Innocence was my first experience reading Caldwell’s work, but it certainly will not be my last. I highly recommend Claim of Innocence.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Claim of Innocence free of charge from the author in conjunction with Media Muscle book campaigns. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
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