Sawyer, Robert J. 1997. Illegal Alien. New York: Ace.
Reviewed 14 January 1999
This book had so much potential. Unfortunately, Sawyer allows it to slide into the clichés of the courtroom thriller, and there are serious research lapses that suspended my disbelief by the neck until dead. It is saved from the trash heap because, despite the research problems, the novel remains internally consistent (something that one cannot say for most "mainstream" courtroom thrillers and political conspiracy novels, such as John Grisham's garbage).
The narration of this novel leaves a lot to be desired. Sawyer explains most of the legal aspects of his novel the same way that Professor Superscience used to explain the Brilliant Invention in pre-Campbell science fiction. That the "mainstream" does the same is no excuse. (If this is supposed to be a parody, it doesn't work.) Ironically, this overexposition just makes the legal errors that much more visible. The saving grace for the narration, though, is that the book doesn't go on, and on, and on, like similar "mainstream" books tend to (Baldacci and Grisham, to name two, are typical).
Well, what about the legal errors? A short plot summary for context: In the fairly near future, the Tosoks arrive from the Centauri system. Naturally, this causes a stir. After some (thankfully) sparse descriptions of the initial few months on Earth, their American primary contact turns up quite mutilated and very dead under circumstances pointing toward one of the Tosoks as the killer. The LAPD investigates (rather cursorily) and charges one of the Tosoks with the murder. We then proceed to a trial with explicit and obvious parallels to the OJ trial.
Despite listing a number of attorneys in his acknowledgements, Sawyer still manages to get a number of critical legal concepts incorrect. Among the more obvious ones:
For many of these errors, though, I cannot blame Mr. Sawyer as much as other bad fictionincluding some commentators whose "explanations" of the OJ trial (which obviously influenced both Mr. Sawyer and the public at large) qualify as fiction. Despite all the pious references to "reasonable doubt" (which, on the evidence presented, would have been a rational basis for the jury's verdict), the OJ case was ultimately about poor race relations, inept police work, and stupid prosecution strategy. The police and prosecution did not learn the lessons from that trial in time for the one in this book.
Within the genre of courtroom thrillers, this is an above-average book. Viewpoint shifts are minimal and smooth; the book is not overfattened with meaningless internal monologue, irrelevant romantic (or other) subplots, or pretentious pseudophilosophical soliloquys; the courtroom sequences themselves have a commendable minimum of silly window-dressing. The foreordained result, though, looms over the novel like the Hindenburg at Lakehurst. As soon as the "good guy" lawyer weighs in for the defense, we know there will be an acquittal, through some kind of unexpected fireball.
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