Sawyer, Robert J. 1997. Illegal Alien. New York: Ace.

Reviewed 14 January 1999

Illegal Alien (cover) 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:

  • While the Tosoks were not accredited as diplomats by the United States, they were accepted as such by the United Nations. That automatically gives federal, not state, jurisdiction over the alleged murderers, as diplomatic privileges are extended to all diplomats on official missions (not just diplomats accredited as representatives to our government). As a more mundane example, assume that Bolivia sends its Ambassador to Colombia to Florida for a meeting of the Organization of American States. While in Florida, the Ambassador is arrested for a DWI. The Florida courts cannot try the Ambassador.
  • Does anyone really believe that the European Union and Japan will sit still for a capital trial of an alien offering advanced technology, given their opposition to capital punishment? Although the Anti-Injunction Act presents a possible roadblock to a federal attack on California's jurisdiction, the International Court of Human Rights in The Hague has become more and more militant about short-circuiting what it considers improper procedures. Sawyer never mentions any international tribunal, international law, or even any international interest.
  • The explanation of Batson challenges to potential members of the jury is incorrect and incomplete. Sawyer implies that, so long as the challenging party offers a nondiscriminatory explanation for the challenge, the challenge will stand. Not so; the opposition can try to demonstrate that the proferred reason is a pretext. While success is rare, it does happen. See, e.g., Coulter v. Gilmore (7th Cir. 1998).
The most grievous legal error, though, is not a legal concept, but a legal myth. Sawyer's lawyer claims that Perry Mason is not a realistic model—and then pulls a Perry Mason. He was right the first time. Cases are won and lost during pretrial investigation and motions—very seldom through courtroom antics. The higher the stakes, the less a competent attorney will rely upon a brilliant courtroom performance.

For many of these errors, though, I cannot blame Mr. Sawyer as much as other bad fiction—including 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.

Overall rating: 3 stars
(barely). This book is an antidote to some of the excesses of the courtroom thriller and to speculative fiction's general ignorance of dispute resolution (other, of course, than at blaster-point). However, it's a big fish in a small pond, and fails to exceed the limitations of its type. Sawyer should have paid more attention to To Kill a Mockingbird and Presumed Innocent—the two best American courtroom thrillers—than to the more popular dreck currently populating the bestseller lists.

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