As a barrister in 1818 London, William Snopes has witnessed firsthand the danger of only the wealthy having their voices heard, and he’s a strong advocate who defends the poorer classes against the powerful. That changes the day a struggling heiress, Lady Madeleine Jameson, arrives at his door.
In a last-ditch effort to save her faltering estate, Lady Jameson invested in a merchant brig, the Padget. The ship was granted a rare privilege by the king’s regent: a Letter of Marque authorizing the captain to seize the cargo of French traders operating illegally in the Indian Sea. Yet when the Padget returns to London, her crew is met by soldiers ready to take possession of their goods and arrest the captain for piracy. And the Letter–the sole proof his actions were legal–has mysteriously vanished.
Moved by the lady’s distress, intrigued by the Letter, and goaded by an opposing solicitor, Snopes takes the case. But as he delves deeper into the mystery, he learns that the forces arrayed against Lady Jameson, and now himself, are even more perilous than he’d imagined.
Disclaimer: Although I received an electronic advance copy of this book from the publisher, the opinions below are my own.
I have a book on my shelf called The Deposit Slip. It’s a contemporary legal thriller, published in 2012, and was Todd M. Johnson’s debut novel. When I reviewed it, I had hopes it would be the first in a series involving the main character, a lawyer. Those hopes were dashed when the next two books, although also modern-day legal thrillers, featured different lead characters. Nine years later, Johnson brings readers his fourth title, and it’s a marked departure from The Deposit Slip and its successors. For one, it’s set in England. It also takes place in the early 19th century.
The Barrister and the Letter of Marque is a cumbersome title to say the least, although it succinctly sums up what the novel is about. It opens when William Snopes, a young heir leaves his father’s home and is promptly disinherited. His crime? To protest his father’s actions regarding a tenant family. The narrative then moves forward twenty years and finds William and his employees in court defending a suspected thief facing deportation. Snopes uses various sleights of hand and other tricks to present his case, and his methods bring him to the attention of Lady Jameson. At first glance, at least to this reader, there seems to be nothing that can be done. It’s difficult to prove something exists when it can’t be found and, for the same reason, it’s equally difficult to prove the same something doesn’t exist either. It’s only because we get the perspectives of the “bad guys (and gals)” that we know something nefarious is going on, but Snopes must figure everything out for himself.
Since this is a Regency era novel, there is the usual mix of snooty gentlemen and ladies all concerned with their standing in society. We also see part of London’s criminal underside. The Prince Regent also makes an appearance, although he’s portrayed in a more positive light than in some of his other fictional appearances. Where this novel fails, however, is in the lack of historical accuracy about this time. First, there is the inclusion of two of the era’s more notable characters: Beau Brummell and Princess Charlotte, the Regent’s daughter. By According to everything I’ve read, Brummell was living in poverty in France in 1818, having fled there two years earlier to avoid his creditors. Princess Charlotte, meanwhile, had died in childbirth towards the end of the previous year. Their involvement here, therefore, rendered much of the plot implausible. Another important plot device is the publication of a “penny dreadful” story, but this type of serial literature wouldn’t come into fashion for another decade at least. The legal proceedings are interesting, with a couple of added plot twists, but Johnson had already lost me.
After finishing The Barrister and the Letter of Marque I felt more than a little letdown. I don’t keep much contemporary fiction on my shelves; that I’d hung on to The Deposit Slip was an indication of how much I’d enjoyed it. I’d hoped for a novel akin to that debut title, albeit in an historical setting. What could’ve been a good plot was betrayed by the historical issues as detailed above. The romance was there, but tried not to be, and felt a tad one-sided. Did Snopes’ emotions really help him decide whether to take on the case? Lastly, I felt a couple of questions remained unanswered and a couple of loose ends untied. These elements would make for a good sequel but given Johnson’s record, I don’t see one coming.
Publisher: Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing)
Publication Date: 03 August 2021
Todd M. Johnson has been a practicing attorney for over 30 years. Todd’s passion for writing blends well with his legal career, and his novels are drawn closely from his personal experiences as a trial lawyer.
A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Minnesota Law School, Todd taught for two years as an adjunct professor of International Law and has served as a US diplomat in Hong Kong.
Todd lives outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife Catherine. They have two children, Ian and Elizabeth.
Todd Johnson’s Website https://authortoddmjohnson.com/