Review: The Barrister and the Letter of Marque by Todd M. Johnson
#1 This is a long review, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You’ll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which may mean some spoilers, so watch out.
Synopsis: William Snopes could have been a barrister with all the prestige due his talents...but he vowed long ago not to represent the upper class he came from. Until an enigmatic woman, an alleged pirate, and a missing Letter of Marque challenge him to break that vow and put his career and life in jeopardy.
Favorite Quote: “Father Thomas will tell you from his profession that it’s God’s most fundamental trait. The essence of who He is. In the courtroom, truth is tool and brick: powerful to wield and the only foundation for real justice.”
I think we all know that I like historical fiction, and some of y’all know that I, upon occasion, enjoy a well-written mystery. What no one, not even I, had the foggiest notion of, was that I would actually really like, of all things, legal thrillers.
I’m not surprised, though. The Barrister and the Letter of Marque (which I will henceforth shorten to The Barrister for convenience purposes) was an exemplary novel that spoke to the Nancy Drew and John Grisham in me. It was the perfect balance of history, mystery, intrigue, suspense, and romance. Well, I wouldn’t have minded a little more romance, but I honestly didn’t expect any, so I’m not complaining!
From page one, this novel kept me on my toes! The way Johnson crafted the mystery was artful and careful—and seriously, the next time someone gives me a spoiler-ridden prologue and I totally forget about it halfway through the book, I’m going to kick myself! There were so many red herrings, unseen clues, and hidden motives that kept me guessing.
Without a doubt, the mystery and suspense elements of The Barrister were perfect. But there was more to the novel, which I was exceedingly grateful for. Most of the time, mysteries and suspenses tend to focus only on the main plot, never on the characters, the message, or any subplots.
Not so with this novel. Nope. Johnson made each character so vibrant and brought them to life with quirks and patterns and quick glimpses into their minds—from William’s affinity for music, which created a score for the entire book, to Sergeant Rhodes’ love of Byron. William was a great hero—even-tempered and logical, almost morally grey at times but still possessing a moral compass and a sense of justice that drove him throughout the book. Obadiah, Edmund, and Father Thomas made a lovely supporting cast that truly fit the description by supporting William, from a technical standpoint as their characters complimented and contrasted with his and from a story standpoint, as they all stood by him and helped him with the case and all the trials (no pun intended) that came along with it. And Madeleine.
Y’all, I actually have good things to say about Madeleine. Which is weird, because I know from experience that no living man can accurately write a woman. (And by living, I mean that the generation of writers that seemed to somewhat grasp the female mind has since passed on.)
Except for Todd M. Johnson.
He actually wrote Madeleine’s character better than I think even Madeleine could—or at least any of the many female authors of this genre. She was strong and stubborn, but she didn’t overtake the story. She was genuine and heartfelt, but never overly emotional or whiny. She wasn’t a James Bond girl—there only to look pretty—but she certainly wasn’t a feminist-style character who tried to run the show. There was nothing excessive about her, and that’s what I liked the most. She was simple, uncomplicated, a refresher for William and me after all the secrecy and intrigue. And at the same time, she had substance. Oh, I know none of that makes sense, but once you read it, you’ll understand. Madeleine was a character that seemed real and was expertly written...especially considering it was a guy doing the writing. (No offense to guys; there are plenty of fantastic male authors out there...but they do just as fine a job of writing women as we women do men.)
(Although, if you catch me at the right time, you might hear me argue that women are better at writing men...but we won’t go there today.)
Not only were Johnson’s characters lovely, but the dialogue was perhaps even better. He truly captured the era with the dialogue, which perhaps provided the most authenticity to the Regency setting of anything in the entire novel, and I loved reading every interaction between the characters.
Unfortunately, the narrative did lack some of the color and style the dialogue did. By no means was it bad, but it didn’t bear the same unique tone...which was kind of sad. I always love reading narrative that emulates the setting of the story. Laura Frantz’s prose is so and such a pleasure to read.
In the end, though, it was the trial scenes that captivated me. They were, of course, the true essence of the novel, weren’t they? There’s something about trials that are so interesting. I don’t understand a lick of all the legal nonsense (although I do, of course, fully understand the concepts of privateering and piracy...this is me we’re talking about, you know), but once we enter the courtroom and start playing tennis with questions and accusations, everything falls into place. If I ever took up a sport, it’d definitely be word tennis.
William was truly a genius, and it’s always fun to read from the point-of-view of someone who knows what they’re doing, what’s going on, and how to react to it.
I do have to mention the small messages and spiritual truths Johnson interwove into the story—thanks to our dear Father Thomas. Every time the man opened his mouth, I applauded his wisdom. I really wish that there had been some softening of William’s heart toward the end of the novel toward God, though—perhaps if that meant he began seeing law and justice through His eyes, took the steps toward forgiving his father and the rest of the aristocracy, or simply started living as God had commanded him.
Either way, Johnson did have a lovely theme of truth and justice, and once you put that with vibrant characters, engaging trial scenes, and perfect dialogue, you’ve got quite the novel on your hands. I’m certainly glad I got the chance to read it, even though I’d no idea how much I would enjoy it!
Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher, publicist, or author, including NetGalley. All opinions expressed are my own.
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About the Author
Todd M. Johnson has been a practicing attorney for over 30 years. Todd's passion for writing blends well with his legal career, and his novels are drawn closely from his personal experiences as a trial lawyer.
A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Minnesota Law School, Todd taught for two years as an adjunct professor of International Law, and has served as a US diplomat in Hong Kong.
The Deposit Slip, Johnson's first novel, debuted in 2012. His second novel, Critical Reaction, was released in October 2013.
A third novel, Fatal Trust, is set in Todd's hometown of Minneapolis, and released in early summer 2017.