Murder for Lunch by Haughton Murphy

Originally Published 1986
Reuben Frost #1
Followed by Murder Takes A Partner

No one on Park Avenue can hail a taxi quite like Graham Donovan. He stands outside his apartment building, arm outstretched like a true master of the universe. Today, he rides downtown with the Wall StreetJournal on his lap, his mind preoccupied by rumors that his venerable Wall Street law firm, Chase & Ward, is about to be accused of insider trading. A suspicious letter has surfaced bearing Donovan’s signature, and he’s desperate to protect his reputation. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, for he has hailed his final cab.

When Donovan drops dead during lunch, the firm calls on its greatest mind, seventy-four-year-old Reuben Frost, a brilliant lawyer who was recently forced into retirement. It’s clear Donovan has been poisoned, but by who? Only Frost knows the ins and outs of Wall Street well enough to pinpoint the killer.

Murder for Lunch is the first in a series of mystery novels featuring the character of Reuben Frost, a semi-retired lawyer with a firm on Wall Street. Forced to step down as a senior partner when he hit the firm’s retirement age of 68, Reuben continues to go into the office each day for a few hours though his successor George Bannard has little use for him. Instead he spends his time helping redraw legal documents, talking with clients and trying to find ways to be useful.

Everyone is shocked when Graham Donovan, one of the firm’s senior partners who is himself expected to be a future managing partner, suddenly collapses and dies during a company lunch. Reuben is placed in charge of making the arrangements for the man’s memorial service and of going through Donovan’s confidential papers but soon turns up evidence of murder in the form of a poisoned carafe of water.

If I had not known that the author had himself been a New York city lawyer I could certainly have guessed. The novel brings the politics and tensions found within a law office to life with convincing detail and does a fine job of reflecting the changes taking place within the profession during that time.

Throughout the novel Frost’s approach to running an office, conducting business or dealing with others is contrasted with that of his replacement Bannard. We see that Frost is frustrated with the younger associates’ attitudes towards drafting legal documents and he thinks Bannard is too focused on implementing the sorts of efficiencies and practices found in the business world and feels that Bannard has surrounded himself with the wrong sorts of advisors.

While there are certainly aspects of that relationship that may be thought of as representing a conflict between traditional practices and unnecessary modernization, Haughton’s presentation of both characters is pleasingly nuanced. For instance, Bannard has chosen to design his office to look very traditional and conventional while Frost had a much more modern design aesthetic reflecting his personality. These details help these characters avoid the trap of feeling like generic lawyer types and bring them both to life.

Frost makes for quite an appealing sleuth, if not a brilliant one. His mind is solid and methodical which is reflected in the way he approaches this case and I particularly appreciated the way he draws on the talents of others to help him. For instance, in the course of this investigation he seeks the help of a young associate and also the advice of his wife. Each make valuable contributions to his efforts and enable him to get closer to the truth of what had happened.

I should say at this point that the relationship between Reuben and Cynthia, a retired ballerina who is using her talents for arts philanthropy projects, is quite lovely and it is one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Their relationship seemed credible and I appreciated that it was quietly loving and mutually supportive as you may expect from a long-standing relationship.

I was less impressed with the character of New York detective Luis Bautista who feels like little more than a badge and a general professionalism and competence that subverts Bannard’s expectations. He has little personality beyond that and although he features about as much as Bannard in the novel, I felt I had far less of a sense of who he was at the end. Some of the other supporting characters feel similarly slight, particularly the other senior partners who are presented as types but given they feature far less prominently I found that a little easier to accept.

The plot is solid enough and I did enjoy the way the author incorporates a secondary plot about how confidential notes on a press statement that Donovan had written were leaked to the press, causing a slide on a client’s stock price and for much anxiety within the senior partners about who the source of the leak might be. The problem for me was that the case unfolds at a very slow pace with little progress being made until the end when suddenly it seems a solution comes from nowhere.

That issue is compounded with a resolution that struck me as rather unlikely, both in terms of the criminal’s motivation and also in terms of the actions of Bannard and Frost which seem needlessly risky both to their well-being and to the health of their law firm. I did not believe that Bannard, as his character had been established prior to that point in the story, would have made the choices that he did and that pulled me out of the ending a little.

The other problem that struck me was that the author leaves several suspects’ motives and movements largely unexamined. There are several characters who we are told are under serious consideration to be the murderer and yet they hardly feature in the narrative at all leaving the story feeling somewhat incomplete.

In spite of those problems however I do want to stress that I did enjoy reading this. Reuben Frost is an inherently likeable character, as is his wife Cynthia, and I found the legal office setting to be appealing and convincing. While it may be some time before I am able to get around to it I would be interested to try other titles from this series to see how Reuben developed as a character and to see if they are more tightly plotted.

4 thoughts on “Murder for Lunch by Haughton Murphy

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