By Catherine Todd
Staying Cool is a legal mystery, set in Los Angeles, about reasonable doubt and middle age.
Avon Books (1997)
Reviewed by: Jeffrey C. Freedman
Who is Catherine Todd and how dare she write a legal mystery set in contemporary Los Angeles? After all, this is the city of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, James Cain's Double Indemnity, and Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins. And how dare she write her novel from the standpoint of a woman who is neither a lawyer nor a detective?
The answer is that Todd is a very funny writer who has taken a concept that could easily have gone awry and handled it quite well. Todd is as adept at handling the legal principle of beyond a reasonable doubt as she is at displaying a sharp sense of humor. Best of all, she describes what it is like to be middle aged in Southern California at the end of the twentieth century.
Staying Cool begins in the jury room. Ellen Laws is a member of a jury that is considering whether to convict an East Los Angeles homeboy of murdering the Russian immigrant owner of a matchmaking service for the wealthy. The evidence against the defendant seems overwhelming and little if any defense is presented. The defendant was identified at the scene of the homicide with the apparent murder weapon (an Erté statue) in his car along with other items clearly belonging to the victim. He had a motive in that the deceased had recently fired his mother, who had been working as her cleaning lady.
The jury quickly votes to convict, with Ellen's concurrence, and the defendant is sentenced to serve his time at the state prison in Tehachapi.
After the jury is discharged, however, Ellen begins to doubt the wisdom of her decision. She runs into obstacles every time she raises the question of reexamining the case. Eventually, the opportunity for Ellen to inquire into the murder arises when a friend asks her to masquerade as a potential client of the dating service as part of a magazine's investigation. Along the way she meets a young, retired criminal defense attorney who is doing his own investigation of the dating service, and the two of them eventually join forces in more ways than one.
The conclusion of her inquiry will not be revealed here, but Todd produces a credible resolution from these conventionally far-fetched beginnings. The story, however, is solid both logically and legally. Although not a lawyer, she knows enough about the legal system to craft a plausible whodunit that will hold any reader's interest throughout. The book is replete with extraordinary wit and spiced with a variety of literary and cinematic allusions that will inspire readers to continue turning the pages in search of the next clever reference.
Ellen Laws, a 44-year-old single mother of a college-age daughter, grew up and attended high school in Torrance and then graduated from UCLA. Readers should not expect a stock character–a yuppie, former All-American cheerleader, perhaps–but rather Ellen, the individual, who diverges greatly from stereotype. First, she is widowed, not divorced. At the time of the events of the book her husband has been dead for five years. Second, her maiden name was Santiago, and she is the product of a mixed marriage and a broken family. Her father, from Hermosillo, Mexico, abandoned the family when Ellen was a girl. She has neither a memory nor even a photograph of him. One of the main themes of the story is Ellen's drive to come to terms with the Latin heritage that her mother denied her. Ellen's mother is now an Alzheimer's patient and this situation deepens Ellen's dilemmas.
Ellen has a brother, who as a young boy went to visit relatives in East Los Angeles and never returned. The brother was raised by these relatives, who were fully a part of the Chicano culture, and he grew up to become a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department. Ellen and her brother have had no contact whatsoever, but the dramatic circumstances of the amateur murder investigation provide an effective vehicle for the two of them to resolve their estrangement and forge a relationship.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this work is the Southern California settings, including the South Bay communities of Redondo Beach and Torrance, with occasional forays into Santa Monica. One of the more humorous episodes is a lunch at a Basque restaurant in Bakersfield (most certainly the Wool Growers Restaurant in old town Bakersfield), which takes place after she visits the incarcerated homeboy in Tehachapi. Another interesting moment takes place at an art park based on a similar location near Dodger Stadium.
The literary and cinematic references are hilarious, ranging from Like Water for Chocolate to Raymond Chandler's famous line about the Santa Ana winds and how they cause Los Angeles wives to hold their paring knives and examine their husbands' throats. Other references include Deborah Tannen's work on communication problems between men and women, Scott Turow, John Grisham, the O. J. trial, Beavis and Butthead, The Little Mermaid, Proposition 13, Waterworld, and South American writers Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez. One of Todd's characters has some particular words of wisdom that will resonate with all litigators: "The court system is like all bureaucracies. It runs for its own convenience."
Ellen is an art consultant who acts as an interior decorator by helping clients select artwork to display in their homes or workplaces. She has gravitated towards Latin America art, perhaps subconsciously due to her own background. Todd seems to have her facts straight regarding this milieu as well. A central issue in the case is a sculpture by the Latin American artist Fernando Botero. Botero's sculptures are of people and animals with bulbous bodies. Many may remember an outdoor exhibition of Botero bronzes several years ago along Santa Monica Boulevard in downtown Beverly Hills. Another sculpture that figures prominently in the book is by the aforementioned Russian/French artist Erté.
Staying Cool record are revealed, there is clearly a basis for doubting the defendant's culpability. The ultimate question, of course, is whether an innocent person has been jailed and, if so, who bears responsibility for the injustice. Did the prosecution engage in obfuscation in order to obtain a conviction? Was the defense so inept that the defendant was not properly represented? Or was this simply the rare case in which the justice system worked properly, but the result may have been the wrong one? What begins as a few nagging doubts of a typical juror ends with such important questions.
Clearly, no defendant should be convicted of a heinous felony that he or she did not in fact commit. In a way it was fortunate that Todd did not choose to have the defendant sentenced to death, although there certainly was a basis for alleging special circumstances in light of the crime committed. Adding the application of the death penalty as an additional layer of complication would have diverted this book away from the issues Todd really wanted to explore and toward a Michael Crichtonesque polemic against some perceived social injustice.
Staying Cool is not Todd's first venture into the legal mystery genre. A few years ago she produced Making Waves, which is set in La Jolla. That novel, which could be described as First Wives Club meets The Firm, involved middle-aged women dumped for trophy wives by husbands who are all partners in a powerful, and unethical, San Diego law firm. While not as funny as Staying Cool, Making Waves is also clever and full of engaging characters.
Staying Cool ultimately is less about profound issues of criminal law and more about what it is like to be a middle-aged professional Los Angeles in the 1990s. Although many readers who are middle-aged Angelenos may not share characteristics with Ellen Laws other than age and place of residence, those who are dealing with maturing children and elderly parents will find in Ellen echoes of their own lives as they, too, face their own mortality and approach–and pass–the half-century mark. Todd holds a mirror to her readers, and more than a few will see their own reflections.
Jeffrey C. Freedman is a partner in the law firm of Rexon, Freedman, Klepetar & Hambleton, where he specializes in labor and employment law.