Books: Wednesday, September 05, 2002
Priddy Good

Local lawyer’s first legal thriller starts with a bang and doesn’t slow down.


Scott Turow and John Grisham, watch your backsides. Seems like every lawyer in the country’s jumping into the legal-fiction-writing game. A half-dozen new authors with “esquire” behind their names are grinding out best-sellers in this genre faster than the bookstores can stock them.

Meet Laurance Priddy, an Aledo attorney who practiced in Fort Worth for 30 years, doing pro-bono work for the American Civil Liberties Union along the way. He is best known — as a lawyer — for winning a big one for the First Amendment last year when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Tarrant County jail’s exclusive born-again-Christian religious unit, the God Pod, was unconstitutional, a case he had shepherded through the lower courts for a decade. A few years ago, Priddy, a former personal-injury lawyer, gave up his private practice to become the regional attorney for Advocacy, Inc., a Dallas-based nonprofit representing people with mental and physical disabilities, a move that added a little more shine to his image as one of this town’s good-guy lawyers. But that’s just his day job.

At night, he writes fiction.

In Critical Evidence, his third novel in 12 years and his first in the growing genre of legal thrillers written by lawyers, Priddy has woven a damned good legal suspense yarn that kept this courtroom-drama junkie turning pages into the wee hours.

The book isn’t without flaws. The sex scenes seem gratuitous, with little connection to the cleverly devised plot, other than to show that high-powered lawyers can often enjoy low-brow sex. And the love affair between the hero-lawyer and his lovely widow client is tied up at the end just a bit too neatly to be believable.

But with those minor annoyances aside, this is a well-written suspense-filled romp through a minefield of smarmy legal maneuverings, corporate cover-ups, and a murder or two. Unlike the courtroom “gotchas” of Perry Mason, Priddy pulls off a surprising twist at the end that rings true.

The book’s central cast of legal eagles covers the stereotypical waterfront — the ethical but poor plaintiff’s attorney, the amoral personal injury slime-bag who wins big, the basically decent old civil lawyer, the hard-nosed but fair judge, and the really despicable corporate legal whore. Still, Priddy manages to give most of his lawyers enough levels of conflicted human feelings to make the characters believable. And even the corporate shill, who remains one-dimensional throughout, is plausible. Just picture the lawyers defending the tobacco giants before Congress.

This unlikely crew of counselors winds up in the same courtroom via a ghastlyhighway accident whose few surviving victims and the families of the dead have filed a multi-billion-dollar wrongful death lawsuit against the driver of an oil tanker truck and the company he worked for.

Set in Fort Worth (which is probably going to have courtroom types here making bets on who these fictional lawyers are modeled after) the story opens with a local cop sipping coffee in his squad car parked near the access ramp to the westbound lanes of I-30. A hard rain’s falling and he’s got his eye on the eastbound lanes where an old Ford truck with a load of watermelons slowly wobbles to a stop, half on and half off the median, its rear end still in the driving lane. A pickup clips it; watermelons spill across all three eastbound lanes, causing a pile-up of a half a dozen cars.

Then, at almost the exact moment the cop calls for backup, an oil tanker truck traveling in the westbound lane veers sharply to the left, crossing the median and plowing head-on into the middle of the pile where it explodes into a sudden conflagration. Nine die. A dozen are injured.

What made the driver veer across the highway? The rain-slick street? A sudden heart attack? The hand of God that a loopy old fundamentalist preacher traveling behind the tanker claims he saw come out of the clouds and hurl the truck into the midst of “unbelievers”? No and no and no. The driver was drunk, according to the autopsy report. Case closed? Not quite.

Enter down-and-almost-out attorney Jim McSpadden, who wants a piece of the accident’s personal-injury action to help keep him out of bankruptcy court. When the victims and surviving family members become clients of the high-profile personal injury lawyer instead, McSpadden is left with the only client no one wants: the young widow of the tanker driver, a woman obsessed with the need to clear her husband’s name.

Slowly coming to believe in her, McSpadden sets out to prove that something else — other than the hand of God — caused the tanker to inexplicably cross the median. This quest, and the suspense it generates as McSpadden gets nearer and nearer the truth, gives this novel its heat and authenticity. The sex scenes aren’t even needed for icing on this tasty cake.

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