Short-story author Kevin Egan applies his firsthand knowledge of the sometimes quirky inner workings of the New York County Courthouse for his debut novel-length work, MIDNIGHT. It’s an overall impressive and self-assured first novel — so much so that its shortcomings are that much harder to take.
Judge Alvin Canter has worked in the N.Y. County Courthouse for several years, along with his faithful secretary, Carol Scilingo, and legal clerk Tom Carroway. Then, on Dec. 31, Carol and Tom discover that the judge has quietly died in his chambers.
According to the rules of Lower Manhattan, when a judge dies, his staff is kept on until the end of that calendar year. But both Carol and Tom are desperate to keep their jobs as long as possible. Tom is deeply in debt to a loan shark whose getting increasingly impatient for his payments. Carol is a single mother with an infirm mother and a hearing-impaired son, both of whom depend upon her.
So they devise a plan to keep the judge’s death a secret until after New Year’s Day. It seems simple enough, until Carol’s former boyfriend becomes suspicious of her sudden nervous behavior, and the entire outstanding amount of Tom’s loan is suddenly called in. That’s when a simple plan starts to unravel and become dangerous.
The central plot conflict is wonderfully twisted and reminiscent of something out of the late Donald E. Westlake. So when Carla and Tom sneak the judge’s body out of the courthouse — to make it look as though the judge died at his home — we hope for many more darkly humorous and suspenseful episodes.
Sadly, however, Egan loses sight of this premise when he has Tom apply his legal skills toward a way to earn some quick cash to keep the loan shark’s violent collector off his back. Eventually, the scheme to keep the judge’s death secret fades into the background as Tom races against the clock with his plan to get the cash and avoid the many complications his idea creates.
At the same time, Egan reveals some personal secrets Carol has been holding for many years. While they add a bit of depth to her character, they end up becoming distractions that drag down the pace and further push the central conflict into the shadows.
To his credit, however, the author’s prose is confident and his characters and dialogue pleasantly believable. And while Tom’s idea to generate quick cash is rooted in legal maneuvers, Egan manages to detail it without getting the reader lost in lots of complicated legalese. Not surprisingly, his writing is strongest when describing the various New York locations of legal activity, as well as the city streets and little-known local landmarks.
Now that Egan has made the transition from short stories to novels, let’s hope he can find another equally intriguing story idea and have enough faith in it see it through to the end.
Had that been the case with MIDNIGHT, it might have resulted in a black comedy masterpiece hailed by a much larger readership. As is, it’s a story that starts in one intriguing direction only to make a sharp turn and speed off down an entirely different road. —Alan Cranis