“Our moral convictions get us nowhere. There’s a murderer here and a damned clever one. The whole thing looks like a colossal frame. If we don’t make it out in a hurry, an innocent man is going to pay.”
Max Gray could never have committed murder. His lifelong friend Steve Hargrave is convinced of that, and as Max’s lawyer, he’s determined to prove his innocence. But, as his father reminds him, that’s not what criminal law is about—it’s about getting your client off, by whatever means necessary. Forget about Max’s innocence. Can Steve’s ideals stand up to everything he will learn about his friends, and even his own father?
At least, that’s the book we think we’re about to get. The Defense Does Not Rest begins with an intriguing prologue establishing Steve’s naivete, as his more cynical father Edward tries to prepare him for the murky world of real-life criminal justice. It looks like the story will be following Steve’s investigation and his growth (or disillusionment) as a young attorney. Instead, Max’s entire past is served up on a platter, from his perspective—a mistake, since Max is the least interesting character in his own life. Only the final section comes alive, as Steve and Edward Hargrave engage in a battle of wits against a brilliant adversary who has everything to lose.
Before that happens, however, there’s a hundred pages of soap opera to get through. The identity of the murder victim is not revealed for quite a while. In the meantime, Max develops three important relationships. The first of these is with Larry Bellairs, who serves under him in Korea. When Max catches Larry stealing, some impulse prompts him to show mercy to the younger man, allowing him to avoid criminal charges that would ruin his future. The very next day, Larry saves Max’s life in battle, at a great cost to his own health. An intense friendship forms between wealthy golden boy Max and scrappy mechanical genius Larry. But how healthy can a relationship be when it’s built on obligations that can never be repaid?
A few months later, while recuperating from his injuries on a Florida beach, Max meets Carol, a damsel in distress. This sweet kid has been stranded after refusing her boss’s advances. Their meet-cute is followed by a whirlwind wedding, but Max soon worries that Carol may not be everything she seems.
It could not be said that he fell out of love with her at once. He still found delight in her pretty ways and her pretty body, but a picture began to emerge—and not a pleasant one. It was the picture of a small-minded, grudging personality with a narrow, shabby point of view and a trick of assessing everything in dollars and cents. He tried to excuse it on the grounds of her meager, pinched childhood but it was the first split in the fabric of romance.
The Gray family’s housekeeper puts it even more succinctly: “She’s a monster with ice in her veins, with an appetite for nothing but money. Get rid of her, Mr. Max, before she destroys you entirely.” Carol is not the astonishing femme fatale that statement would suggest, however. Her character develops along more subtle and realistic lines.
The final player in a game that will lead to murder is Larry’s half-sister, Avery. Max has been hearing about her from her brother for years before he finally meets her (for so long, in fact, that I was starting to wonder whether she really existed at all). Avery is a whipsmart writer who also happens to be gorgeous and up for any kind of adventure. But Avery seems just a little too perfect, her sudden appearance in Max’s life a little too well-timed.
All of these people are more interesting than Max himself, who remains frustratingly nebulous. It’s hard to care what happens to such a cipher. Steve Hargrave is devoted to him because Max was nice to Steve when he was disabled by polio, which is surely a pretty low bar to clear. Regardless, Steve is reluctant to reward that kindness by digging into Max’s secrets, much to his father’s annoyance.
“I’ll tell you what’s wrong. He always did spill everything to me because he knew for sure that it’d never go any further. Now you’re asking me to go and worm things out of him in a spirit of friendship and then turn around and betray that friendship.”
“Grow up, son, or else find another profession. Criminal law is no place for a man with scruples and ideals. We’ve got just one objective—to get our man off—“
“I know, I know. But how d’you think he’s going to feel—”
“If you don’t do it, he won’t feel a thing. He’ll be dead,” said Hargrave shortly.
More happens in this last section than in the whole rest of the book put together, and none of it plays out quite as the reader might expect. Here is where the gloves come off and the elegant cruelty at which Edna Sherry excels finally emerges, when it’s almost too late.
The Defense Does Not Rest pairs one half of a good book with another half that is just okay. Sherry saves all the fireworks for the end. That well-executed ending saves the book, but at the cost of making you realize how much better the rest of it could have been.
Frank E. O’Gorman, Best Seller, February 1, 1959
It is a terrible thing to get ten pages into a novel, to settle back knowing you are in the hands of a real professional, and then suddenly to discover that the beginning of the novel was probably not the beginning, but was put there, in all likelihood, at the direction of the author’s agent or a reader at Dodd, Mead. I am only making an educated guess. But I’d bet on it. The author obviously has more sense. It is a good novel. Kill that first chapter, or move it away back in the story and you would have a novel that gradually sweeps up to a powerful climax. As it is, it opens splendidly, then drops right through the floor, and never manages to get on its feet very steadily again. It is a tragedy, because the potential is all there. But the grand opening surely does kill this one. Well written bathos.
The Defense Does Not Rest is out of print, with affordable used copies available.