If people are removed from each other by only a few degrees of separation, then what does it mean when a person is associated with criminals? Gangsters? Pornographers? In the context of a social life, how should a person’s core character be interpreted?
For Deputy District Attorney Rachel Knight, of the Los Angeles Special Trials Unit, she is fully aware of how various human associations can taint a reputation. Such ties, though, may be misleading as well. Marcia Clark’s novel “Guilt by Association” opens with three prosecutors of an elite unit within the LA District Attorney’s office. These three are workaholics who have a passion for crime-fighting. By the end of the day, though, one of the fellow prosecutors, Jake Pahlmeyer, is found dead in a compromising circumstance-in a dive motel with a young male prostitute. Was this a murder-suicide stemming from an attempt at blackmail?
So who was Pahlmeyer exactly?
Knight muses on how little she and her colleagues often about each other because of an ingrained sense of privacy.
Not much one for domestic comforts, Knight herself lives in the Biltmore Hotel. She puts in long work days and has a challenging prime caseload, with many legal cases fraught with political risks. Ambitious and smart, she puts in long work days and often walks the half-dozen blocks back to her hotel room in a night-time LA.
Her professional life comes first. A part of a sisterhood of powerful women in law enforcement, she has a group of girlfriends with whom she’ll relax over meals out and drinks. She has recently broken up with one the good guys (a renowned criminal defense attorney) she was dating. As high-intensity individuals, they each have learned how to “to surf each other’s rough spots.” Her friends are working through relationship issues, too, on-again / off-again relationships. Romantic commitments are not easy ones to make. Any romantic relationship will have to compete with her passion for work. She is starting an early and non-committal romance with a well-to-do police officer (who has another income stream from his design work on a popular video game.) With the untimely death of her colleague, she takes on some additional cases. One involves the rape of a teenage girl, whose father-a wealthy physician-has close political ties with a prominent community figure. Used to working on high-powered teams, Knight maneuvers out an investigating officer who she terms a “dumb load” and who is more widely nicknamed “Useless” because of his lack of follow-through.
She engages in hands-on investigations and tags along with police officers in order to get a more intimate sense of the cases. She has progressed so far in part because of her political savvy.
The Los Angeles of Rachel Knight’s world is one of haves and have-nots, riven by class differences. The wealthy live in homes worth well into the seven figures while the poor have to chase welfare payments. These groups interact only when there are mutual interests, usually based around human needs.
Law enforcement and the prosecutor’s office are pulled into people’s lives with the committing of various crimes. This young prosecutor is adept at talking to people of various backgrounds, and she goes out into their niches to gain a deeper understanding of individuals’ social contexts-in order to build stronger cases.
Her years working in the prosecutor’s office have given this aggressive attorney a sense of human predation and rationalizations.
She is aware that people all have their secrets. She develops a working hypothesis, but she’s quick to trade it for another if the evidence points elsewhere.
She interprets the personalities around her-anyone is potentially a person of interest unless they can be unequivocally excluded through meticulous police work.
She understands that people behave according to various motives, and some unusual choices may be explained fairly simply.
While Knight works long hours upholding the law, she bends many rules in order to get information that she shouldn’t legally know. She parallel-researches cases that law enforcement is handling because she is afraid that they may be missing critical information.
She relies on a fringe activist group to conduct research for her in less savory regions of the Internet.
Her work takes her into different parts of the community.
In investigating the case of her colleague Pahlmeyer’s death, she ends up in a high school in a rough part of town.
When she is meeting with a friend of a 17-year-old boy found murdered, she observes wryly: “The lines were delivered with maximum heartrending angst. Teens can wring drama out of the way paint dries, but having been in love with a boy who’d been killed under strange and mysterious circumstances was the jackpot of teen tragedy. Unless he then turned into a vampire. That was the megajackpot.”
This deputy DA has racked up a long list of legal victories because she acts strategically even if apparently counter-intuitively.
In one case, she suppresses a defendant’s confession: “I assessed the pile of motions on my desk. I’d whittled it down to one motion to suppress a defendant’s confession. I could prove the case without it, and generally speaking I wasn’t big on using confessions anyway. They were almost always a Trojan horse, a mixture of admission and avoidance, filled with ‘yes…but’s. If a defendant wants to (expletive) the jury, let him do it on the witness stand, where I have something to say about it. I wouldn’t cry if the judge threw out the confession, so I decided to file a canned response and use the extra time for a workout.”
She knows the Hollywood of mass media is a ritzy space with movie stars pursued by paparazzi, but the law enforcement side is rough-and-tumble-with seedy apartments and flophouse motels attracting the runaways, the drugged-out, the homeless, and the naïve young.
“Guilt by Association” offers a richly-people and well-plotted mystery about people’s secret lives.
The author Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the infamous OJ Simpson case.
She works as a legal commentator for various media outlets. Clark co-wrote a prior non-fiction book about the Simpson case titled “Without a Doubt” (with Teresa Carpenter).
Shalin Hai-Jew works for Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan.