Life Sentence

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Published by: Berkley
Release Date: March 2, 2004
Pages: 416
ISBN13: 978-0425194805



In a Byzantine world of big-city politics full of payback and promise, ambition and disgrace. Jon Soliday is legal counsel to a powerful politician-also his childhood best friend—who is running for governor. The two have shared political success and undying loyalty. They also share a dark secret from the summer of 1979: a party that resulted in the death of a teenage girl. Soliday was implicated but, through his friend’s political connections, escaped legal trouble.

Soliday remembers little from that night, but carries an uncertain guilt he can’t shake. Now, as the players from 1979 fall prey to an unknown killer, Soliday is himself accused of murder. And as the puzzle unfolds, the people he most suspects are those he has entrusted with his defense—his ambitious defense attorney and his oldest friend.

A man’s past, both what he remembers and what he fears, has never felt so crushing—and may well leave him without a future.

“Ellis follows up the success of his debut legal thriller, the Edgar Award-winning Line of Vision, with an equally intricate and intelligent murder puzzle that feels like it’s 100% plot, laid out with clean precision. First-person narrator Jon Soliday, workaholic legal counsel and best friend to state senator Grant Tully, lands in the middle of three homicide mysteries (and an oblique blackmail attempt) in the first 75 pages. First, his protege Bennett Carey shoots an apparent home intruder-in the back. Then, on a mission for Senator Tully, Soliday consults with attorney Dale Garrison on an election issue. Garrison is murdered shortly after the meeting, and Soliday is fingered as the likeliest suspect. Complicating the case is a decades-old secret: in 1979, a teenage Soliday and Tully, on a drunken tear, were involved in a murder that remains unsolved to this day, and the investigation of Garrison’s death threatens to blow it open. Ellis couples clear, direct prose with abundant legal detail. Soliday is a laconic and mysterious hero, adding another layer of suspense. The lack of an obligatory love interest is notable. Soliday is divorced and lives with a pair of pampered pugs; brittle ex-wife Tracy blows into the story occasionally to offer moral support but nothing more carnal. What kind of a hero is this Soliday, a successful 30-something with no apparent loved ones? And how reliable a narrator? It’s all highly entertaining and full of satisfying twists.”
—Publishers Weekly

“Following his lauded debut, Line of Vision, Ellis’s gripping second novel is a murder mystery chock-full of political intrigue, buried secrets, and surprising twists. Jon Soliday and Grant Tully have been best friends since high school. Grant is now a powerful state senator, and Jon is his chief counsel. Both have successfully buried a secret that links them. Back in high school, Jon was accused of murdering a girl he met at a party. Grant’s father, a state senator at the time, helped clear Jon’s name. When Jon receives a cryptic blackmail letter, he fears political repercussions because Grant is running for governor. Things only get worse when Jon meets with another attorney, Dale Garrison, and shortly after their meeting, Dale winds up dead. Jon, who returned to Dale’s office after receiving a call, is implicated and arrested. Bennett Carey, a lawyer at Jon’s firm who also aids Grant, takes Jon’s case, but Jon isn’t sure Bennett will be able to effectively defend him without knowing what happened when Jon was accused of the first murder. The connection between the two murders runs deeper than even Jon suspects. Readers familiar with Chicago politics will appreciate Ellis’ references, but all readers will enjoy his tightly woven narrative and the exciting turns the story takes.”

“A twisty, swiftly paced second legal thriller puts Ellis (Line of Vision, 2001, winner of an Edgar Allan Poe Award) into the ring with Scott Turow. Jon Soliday, legal counsel to state Senator Grant Tully, discovers that Langdon Trotter, Tully’s opponent in the upcoming governor’s race, submitted an invalid petition. The irregularity will knock Trotter out of the contest-which, polls indicate, he leads. But Tully tells Soliday that going public with the information might backfire, making the underdog look petty. Instead, Tully suggests that Soliday inform lawyer Dale Garrison about the fake petition and let Garrison use the information to blackmail Trotter into throwing the race. Soliday hates the tactic, but not as much as he hates Trotter’s conservative politics. Just before he meets Garrison, however, it’s Soliday who receives an anonymous blackmail note. Hand over $250,000, it threatens, or “the secret that nobody knows” will go to “the senator.” Soliday sees Garrison, who likes Tully’s plan-but, after the meeting, someone murders Garrison. Since Soliday was alone in the lawyer’s office at the time, he’s suspect numero uno. His plot revving up, Ellis cuts back to 1979. Tully and Soliday, high-school buddies, party with drugs, booze, and a woman who comes on to Soliday. After she and Soliday have heavy sex, the woman is found dead. Did Soliday do it? Is this possible murder “the secret nobody knows”? Soliday claims he blacked out and doesn’t remember. Return to 2000, as emotionally coiled lawyer Bennett Carey fights for Soliday. Proceedings appear to move in Soliday’s favor, but then they turn in another direction. And another. Then another, as Ellis twists matters perhaps one time too many. Still, his case clearly shows that clues, like law and politics, can be turned to cast doubt or favor on anyone. This one’s all about the puzzle (character detail, though significant, seems familiar and obligatory)-and what a tricky, surprising puzzle it is.”
—Kirkus Reviews

In Line of Vision, which won him an Edgar Award for Best First Mystery in 2001, Chicago lawyer and political insider David Ellis successfully violated one of those infamous 10 rules for mystery writers by giving us a charming, supersmart, first-person narrator who might have been guilty of the crimes he denied committing.

In Life Sentence, Ellis ups the ante by making his new first-person narrator—Jon Soliday, legal counsel and best friend to state Sen. Grant Tully, who is the hot favorite to be the next governor of Illinois—such a selfless, square, hard-working nerd that we can’t possibly believe a word he tells us.

In a book that should be must reading not only for fans of intricate, Turow-like mystery plotting but also for everyone who has ever thought of running for public office, Ellis alternately soothes us with Soliday’s apparent adoration for Tully and rattles us with doubts about the senator’s honesty and the narrator’s gullibility. We spot (deliberately, of course) one of the villains early on, as Soliday’s protege—a younger, more ambitious lawyer named Bennett Carey—is accused of overkill for shooting a home intruder in the back. Then, when Soliday himself is charged with the murder of a connected (read corrupt) old lawyer, we have to ask ourselves: Did he really do it? Is he just putting us on with his story about mysterious phone calls? And what’s all this extra historical baggage about some old murder-rape from 1979, which Soliday and Tully were involved in? Who does Ellis think he is—John Grisham?

The answer to that has to be, Yes—with any luck. Ellis certainly writes as well as his Georgia colleague, and his plotting is even sharper. The only remaining question is whether the book-buying public is ready for a hero whose idea of a great Saturday night date is walking his two cloyingly cute pug dogs.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Past Imperfect
Those of you who fell asleep over Scott Turow’s last novel will want to check out Life Sentence, by David Ellis (Putnam, $25), the follow-up to LINE OF VISION, which won an Edgar for best first novel in 2001. Ellis balances plot, setting, pacing, characterization and surprises in just the right measure to create a compelling high-stakes courtroom drama. He also takes time to explore the psyche of lawyers as Turow does so well, but prefers to set his sights on a different generation, usually young turks still struggling to find that balance between personal success and unimpeachable ethics.

In LIFE SENTENCE, political legal adviser Jon Soliday is charged with the murder of a local rainmaker. He can clear his name only if he exposes a decades-old criminal incident that involved both himself and his boss, who is now a popular politician running for governor. The book is set in an unnamed city very much like Chicago, and the ward-level politics of the Windy City are apparent as Soliday picks his way through various alliances and tries to find out who his friends really are.

However, the political elements matter less than the personal ones in this nicely layered story. Not only is Soliday forced to confront his notions of loyalty and friendship; he must also face a truth that has haunted him for decades, impairing his ability to reconcile himself to his involvement in the old crime. This inner battle adds exceptional depth to Life Sentence.”
—Washington Post

“What a tangled web David Ellis weaves in Life Sentence the richly plotted follow-up to his Edgar Award-winning 2001 debut legal thriller, Line of Vision.

Our narrator, Jon Soliday, is legal counsel and longtime friend to powerful state Sen. Grant Tully, who’s about to make a run for governor of an unnamed Illinois. When Soliday discovers information that could knock Tully’s conservative rival out of the race, the senator, fearing that such a move might backfire, suggests instead that Soliday pass the info to lawyer Dale Garrison, who can use it to blackmail his opponent into throwing the election.

Before Soliday can meet with Garrison, he receives a blackmail note himself, demanding $250,000 or “the secret that nobody knows” will be divulged to the senator. Worse, shortly after their meeting, Garrison is found murdered, leaving Soliday as the prime suspect.

Soliday suspects the secret dates back to 1979 when a woman was found dead after a night of drugs and alcohol with he and Tully. The case was never solved and neither teenager was charged thanks to Tully’s political connections.

Though Soliday has been able to put the incident behind him, it still troubles him that he doesn’t remember exactly what happened or who was involved in the woman’s death.

Life Sentence is a puzzle whose pieces are so expertly scattered that you may not recognize them until they’re the last best guess.

On the strength of two strong early works, Ellis must be considered the leading contender to succeed fellow Chicago lawyer-author Scott Turow in the literary legal thriller category.”
—Jay MacDonald, The Fort Myers News-Press

“The windy city (albeit unnamed) is the setting for David Ellis’s second courtroom/ political thriller. In this follow-up to his very successful LINE OF VISION (2001), Ellis takes us through the shadowy hallways of a gubernatorial election, mired in unexpected and iconoclastic revelations about one of the candidates and his closest political ally.

As he did in his first book, Ellis gives his narrator a mesmerizing voice, one the reader is prepared to take at face value. We want to trust him. We want to believe him and to believe in him. He appears to be such a nice, honest and humble guy. Jon Soliday is Senator Grant Tully’s Chief Counsel and closest friend. But a few weeks before the election, he is charged with murder. The events that led up to and surround the crime explode around a number of people, who were involved in a rape/murder that happened twenty years in the past. That tragedy becomes the paradigm around which Ellis builds his tale. We learn that some of the most powerful movers and shakers in the state may have reached their lofty perches as a result of a conspiracy to cover up that long forgotten crime — the one none of them ever talked about, the one that took place early in the summer of 1979. What really happened that night? And how can something that was “taken care of” so precipitously at the time have anything to do with the diabolical killing just taken place?

Soliday is someone who, despite his erudition, his education, his experiences and his connections, is caught up in situations that are beyond his control. And while the reader may empathize or even identify with him, s/he is forced to question many of the self-serving, even possibly naive decisions he makes. Ellis presents his readers with several probing questions: does it matter if choices are made in the name of truth and justice, but are ultimately fixed in a void? Are “truth and justice” abstract concepts to be ignored or twisted to fit a particular situation? What can we say of a man who refuses to question the vagaries of memory, guilt, loyalty and human nature? Big issues. Big dilemmas.

Life Sentence is an imaginative book that debunks the notion that thrillers are “only” escape genre fiction. Ellis gives us a large novel that is propelled by both plot and character and it surpasses all expectations. Readers will find themselves convinced of one thing, only to learn twenty pages later that they have presumed too much. This tactic, in less capable hands, could be disjointed and clumsy. But here, the author uses this device to create a very clever scenario that moves along in a pithy manner. And he proves the validity of the cliché: “… the best laid plans …” etc. He proposes the argument that human frailties and blind ambition are the elements that propel people on a collision course with disaster. And once the detritus of such calamity is cleared, the landscape is forever changed.

With the skill of a veteran writer, Ellis segues from time frame to time frame with perfect grace. He maintains control over the two stories; infuses his characters with enough humility and chutzpah to make them believable; and touches upon a wide variety of philosophical arguments, ranging from the validity of the death penalty, to notion of male bonding, to the pitfalls of an old boy network, to the demands of lifelong friendships. How far should someone feel compelled or pressured to go in order to prove her/his loyalty to a friend or colleague, he asks.

Fans of political/courtroom thrillers will find Life Sentence a tale rich in ironies and littered with enough red herrings to challenge the deductive skills of the most Holmesian armchair sleuth. This is a story that is limned like a mobious strip twisting back on itself, with drama and deeply felt convictions about paths taken that lead to destinies unknown until it is sometimes too late.

David Ellis can feel completely at ease moving into his place on the shelf alongside better-known writers. He is bound to give them a run for their money. Enjoy.”