‘Innocent until proven guilty’ – that’s the phrase we all tell ourselves when discussing some crime or other that we’ve seen on the news yet seems far away, intangible. There is an objective sense of justice in it that the most optimistic of us believe can actually be found in the real world. In his first novel, Contempt, Michael Cordell explores the opposite – the more realistic – concept of ‘guilty until proven innocent’.
Thane Banning was a real estate lawyer before being sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. After five years on death row, he is released on a technicality. Everyone – literally everyone – in LA thinks he’s gotten away with murder, especially the fervent District Attorney that put him away. I say ‘literally’ everyone, but there are still two people that believe in his innocence – perhaps to an unbelievably optimistic degree. Upon Thane’s release, his devoted wife immediately breaks things off with her boyfriend to return to him; and his overconfident former boss immediately offers him his old job back. It almost seems too easy…
But then, the detective that arrested Thane for the murder he definitely did not commit is murdered, and the man arrested for it – who spent time with Thane in the maximum security prison – begs Thane to represent him. Despite the only training in criminal law he’s had was research he did while incarcerated, Thane is determined to take the case. Perhaps that’s because he genuinely believes his prison acquaintance to be innocent, or perhaps it’s to take vengeance on the DA who put him away (it being an election year, he’s decided to prosecute this case himself).
One thing’s for sure: there are certain vague similarities between this case and Thane’s five years previous that hint at both being some kind of set up. Are the two cases linked? If so, can Thane clear his former fellow inmate’s name? And in the process, can he clear his own?
In the first few chapters, I found it rather unbelievable how easy it is for Thane to assimilate back into life on the outside. Yet also how simultaneously hard it is at the same time. Those closest to him – namely his wife Hannah and his boss / friend Joseph – welcome him back with open arms; while seemingly every stranger on the planet treats him with bitter contempt (apologies for using the novel’s title in such a way!).
To me, this seems too simple. A wife who wants to take him back but who has fallen in love with another man would’ve been much more compelling. And would every other randomer he walks past really remember his face five years after the fact? The latter is merely used for added tension and character building, particularly early on, and comparisons of human nature towards the end; but the former is soon used for satisfactory contrast once Thane agrees to act as the criminal defence lawyer (despite his lack of experience) on the current murder case. Hannah wants to get her husband back – the one she fell in love with – and the true strain in their relationship comes not from her (wrongly) convicted murderer husband being released from prison, but from his dedication to setting a (wrongly) accused murderer free.
As I delved deeper into the enticing story and became more familiar with the various characters, I fell deeper down the rabbit hole of unrelenting enjoyment. It became increasingly difficult to pick up on any flaws in the plot – if, indeed, there are any (before the ending). Yet in terms of the characters, there was one thought that kept coming back to me: they are all such obvious stereotypes. There’s the inherently good yet flawed protagonist who, after suffering injustice, just can’t keep his anger in check; the hard-as-nails-and-won’t-apologise-for-it ex-inmate sidekick; the overly eager law student willing to help as long as it advances her career; the loyal wife who can wait five years for her convicted murderer husband to be released but not five months for him to help someone else; the antagonist who is technically on the right side of the law, although his words and actions make him seem more like a bounty hunter from a Spaghetti Western who takes justice into his own hands… Need I go on?
Overall it’s a scintillating read. I’ve always been a big fan of courtroom dramas – especially those with fully developed characters. And in that sense, Contempt does not disappoint. It’s more of a thriller than a standard drama, which makes it even more intriguing and exciting, as the discord between the (albeit stereotypical) characters grows and the tension builds exponentially. And to top the incitive narrative off – the proverbial sour cherry on the inedible cake of it all – the finale is filled with twist upon unexpected twist – all of which initially blew my mind over and over as if I’d been struck in the cerebral cortex by a mini cluster grenade.
However, upon further reflection, there are a few issues I take with these twists – mainly the reason why they were so unexpected in the first place. I was reminded of the magic heist film Now You See Me. In that film – SPOILER ALERT – the detective charged with apprehending the ‘Four Horsemen’ turns out to be the group’s ringleader. Yet prior to this reveal, certain actions of his – even when he’s alone – contradict his knowledge of the grand plan.
It seems to be the same in Contempt. The twists aren’t hinted at throughout; rather, they feel independent of the characters’ words and actions leading up to them. In trying to tie everything up in a neat bow, what had the potential to be a first class conclusion to a generally great story actually made the whole thing unravel in my mind. I sincerely hope a (deserved) movie adaptation will one day give Contempt a greater sense of cause and effect, which is all that is required to make the ending one that everything leading up to it, well, deserves.
Until then, I still highly recommend this novel. It’s full of impressive prose and emotive dialogue; the plot is engaging, at times exhilarating; and the characters, however stereotypical they may be, are relatable and compelling. It’s a real page-turner.
You can pick up a copy for yourself from TCK Publishing.
If you’d like to read more of my articles, I’ve written about a wide range of topics, including: art – specifically van Gogh Alive @ MediaCityUK; theatre – from my most recent, Rent @ NWTAC Theatre, to my favourite, The Greatest Play in the History of the World; film, such as. One Night in Miami…; and even travel, where you can learn all about my romantic weekend in Paris – COVID-19 edition.