A Reasonable Doubt by Phillip Margolin

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Robin Lockwood #3
Preceded by The Perfect Alibi
Followed by A Matter of Life and Death

The Blurb

Robin Lockwood is a young criminal defense attorney and partner in a prominent law firm in Portland, Oregon. A former MMA fighter and Yale Law graduate, she joined the firm of legal legend Regina Barrister not long before Regina was forced into retirement by early onset Alzheimer’s. 

One of Regina’s former clients, Robert Chesterfield, shows up in the law office with an odd request―he’s seeking help from his old attorney in acquiring patent protection for an illusion. Chesterfield is a professional magician of some reknown and he has a major new trick he’s about to debut. This is out of the scope of the law firm’s expertise, but when Robin Lockwood looks into his previous relationship with the firm, she learns that twenty years ago he was arrested for two murders, one attempted murder, and was involved in the potentially suspicious death of his very rich wife. At the time, Regina Barrister defended him with ease, after which he resumed his career as a magician in Las Vegas. 

Now, decades later, he debuts his new trick―only to disappear at the end. He’s a man with more than one dark past and many enemies―is his disappearance tied to one of the many people who have good reason to hate him? Was he killed and his body disposed of, or did he use his considerable skills to engineer his own disappearance?

Robin Lockwood must unravel the tangled skein of murder and bloody mischief to learn how it all ties together.

The Verdict

A Reasonable Doubt is built upon a surprisingly solid puzzle. Those approaching this in search of “the ultimate impossible crime” may be disappointed but fans of legal adventures may enjoy.

“In ancient Egypt, those who offended the gods were entombed alive in a sarcophagus and died a horrible death,” Chesterfield said. “I am known as an escape artist. Tonight, I will perform the ultimate escape: I will cheat death.”

My Thoughts

A Reasonable Doubt is the third in Margolin’s series of legal thrillers featuring Robin Lockwood, a young criminal defense lawyer who put herself through law school as a professional mixed martial artist. Normally I don’t like to start a series in the middle but I decided to make a rare exception for this one.

The book first caught my eye a few months ago when I spotted the rather bold claim on the inside of the dust jacket that a murder that takes place in it was “the ultimate impossible crime”. Of course, I learned from my recent experience never to trust advertising copy, particularly when it comes to impossible murders, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Murder plus magicians often makes for a pretty effective combination.

Robin is contacted by Robert Chesterfield, a magician who is seeking legal advice on patenting an illusion from a retired partner, Regina, who had helped him years earlier. While she considers whether to take him on as a client given his request falls outside her normal areas of expertise she decides to make contact with Regina to find out more about him. What she learns is that he had been accused of several murders before his wife died in mysterious circumstances. The legal cases against him failed thanks to Regina’s smart defense as well as some inept lawyering on the part of the prosecutor assigned the case and he used his new notoriety as a springboard to a Las Vegas residency.

After explaining why she cannot take the case she is invited to witness the first public performance of the illusion. Chesterfield is to be entombed in a sarcophagus that will be filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Robin herself checks the sarcophagus to make sure there are no trick doors. When the time comes to open it however he has vanished and everyone, including his assistants, seem genuinely baffled as to where he has gone.

While the above description of the first half of the book doesn’t seem to suggest any impossibilities, I am happy to report that the book offers up two though neither comes close to matching the hyperbole of “the ultimate impossible crime”.

Given how late these two incidents take place in the novel I feel I have to be pretty vague about the circumstances. Instead I will try to describe and address them in more general terms.

One involves a murder that takes place in front of a crowd. While the book seems to suggest that the fact the murder took place was impossible I think that ignores that there obviously were people who could have done it. Instead I would suggest that a better claim for it being an impossible crime lies in the problem that almost all of the suspects (and there are a lot) were observing each other in the audience or their movements were visible on stage.

This has shades of Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I suggested did not qualify as impossible) and The Problem of the Green Capsule (which does). Whether you accept it as an impossibility or not, know that the question of how it was done is quite short-lived. We quickly learn at what point the murder took place and how it was done, even if the exact identity of that person seems unclear for a while longer.

Regardless of whether it is impossible, I think the novel builds up to the moment of the murder really well building a strong sense of place and occasion. I had little difficulty imagining what was going on or where the key people were in relation to each other and while the reveal of the corpse is not exactly surprising, I think it is quite effective.

The second moment in the story that could be said to be impossible is simpler still but I think that simplicity gives it an added impact. This takes place in Chapter 20 and involves a character surviving something that ought to have killed them. Once again the explanation comes too quickly for it to really make a big impact as a puzzle but I think the idea is striking and I love the background to the incident and the way it is interpreted by the characters involved. Simple but effective.

Given how late these two incidents occur (and that one is fairly peripheral to the plot), it seems odd that the blurb would lead with them. Instead the novel places more emphasis on the reader gaining a sense of Chesterfield as a man and understanding the events he is widely believed to have committed. Over half the book is spent on those previous events and understanding the significance of the book’s title – why he would escape on a reasonable doubt even if he seems obviously guilty.

Still while the structure may be a little awkward in terms of creating an easy-to-summarize plot, I think there are some benefits to how it presents its timeline somewhat out of sequence. This allows us to encounter Robert for the first time without a knowledge of that background which will clearly be so important to the remainder of the story.

I also really liked the way that Margolin uses the character of Regina within the story. She is clearly a brilliant lawyer and has information that she simply cannot recall on demand. This features in a very powerful moment late in the story which serves almost as a challenge for the reader as a key deduction is given but completely stripped of the context needed to make sense of it. It’s a clever plot element that I think works nicely.

The novel’s two impossibilities are perhaps too insubstantial to feel properly clued but I had few complaints with the way the key points of the murder itself are presented. The reader is given enough information to deduce much of what had happened and why. If there is a problem it is that the suspects feel rather lightly sketched in comparison with the victim and so there is little sense of who those suspects are beyond knowledge of their motive or opportunity. Still, I think the choice of a killer is a good one and I enjoyed that reveal.

While I am on the subject of things I liked, let me mention the novel’s treatment of stage magic and illusions. This is not just a character’s profession but an important element of the story and I feel Margolin shows an understanding and appreciation for stage magic. It’s perhaps not as deeply woven into the story as in Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat but the novel not only discusses some aspects of stage performance, it also addresses some parts of the business side of the profession too.

I also appreciated that there was some actual discussion of legal principles and ideas. I am not sure it is the most naturalistic conversation but the author does a good job of making legal conversations feel accessible and important to the plot.

I was less enamored of the writing style which tends to be quite direct, particularly in the earliest chapters. While I can applaud the idea of getting the story moving as quickly as possible, the execution of that here feels off with Margolin often telling us things he could show us. At times that means that characters behave in ways that feel quite against their interests in that moment – such as when Robert makes a rather hard pass at Regina. While people certainly do things out of a sense of compulsion, Robert’s typical craftiness makes that seem unlikely, and so it comes off as staggeringly ill-advised.

The other complaint I have is that the book does not lean quite heavily enough into the concept behind its title. While the author doesn’t definitively state what the truth behind those initial murders were, I think it is clear who we are meant to believe did them. I really liked the idea that there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you can prove in court and I think the plot could have more closely reflected that and given us a corpse we are unsure how we feel about.

While I do not recommend reading this purely for the impossibilities, A Reasonable Doubt is a pretty quick read. I do wonder if I would have found the opening less grating had I already known the characters. The characters and their relationships are all clearly communicated however and I did find the elements of magic and illusion added some interest for me.