“States of Grace” by Mandy Miller is the author’s debut novel. In full disclosure, the author is one of my dearest friends, but I’ve attempted to eliminate all bias from this review. Luckily this was not difficult because the novel is a delicious romp through the strangeness of the Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s criminal and judicial landscape. “States of Grace” falls in the category of modern hard-boiled detective novels although Grace is a lawyer, not a detective.
Attorney Grace Locke lost her leg to an IED near Fallujah. She lost her marriage and, nearly, her law license after a DUI conviction fueled by the abuse of painkillers from her leg injury and alcohol. Grace is on probation with the Florida State Bar and must rebuild her reputation while she regularly attends NA meetings. A former Assistant State’s Attorney in Fort Lauderdale, she now scrapes by with low-paying court-appointed criminal defense cases and lives in a “no-tell motel” owned by an ex-con she helped exonerate from a false conviction. Grace needs a big break because she cannot survive on the dregs of cases assigned to her and her rent-free room at the aptly named Hurricane Hotel. She has to score paying clients whose cases will help build back her reputation and career.
As luck would have it, the teenage daughter of Grace’s soon-to-be-ex’s wealthy (and married) mistress is arrested for an apparently gruesome murder of her prep school guidance counselor. Through a somewhat dubious maneuver Grace lands the matter. To all appearances, it is an open and close case with all signs pointing to her new client, Zoe’s, guilt. But is she guilty?
Grace observes at the novel’s outset: “Innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A truly innocent client, one who didn’t do it, that’s the rare, unfortunate soul that will keep you up nights and hijack your brain like a catchy song. And if lady luck forsakes him, that’s the client who will haunt you forever. Innocence is funny that way. Seems like a good thing on the surface, but at its core, it’s a burden.” (1) Defending the Constitutional rights of a guilty party is relatively easy. The guilty likely will get a plea deal or, if they go to trial, will be found guilty of some or all of what they did. But with an innocent client, you run the risk that they will be convicted of something they did not do. The first chapter highlights the inverse dilemma when, to her astonishment, a jury acquits one of Grace’s decidedly guilty clients.
Interesting characters abound in “States of Grace” beyond its smart-assed protagonist. These include her landlord and former made man Vinnie Vicanti, soon-to-be-ex, Armando “Manny” Martinez, former bartender and now sometime investigator, Jake, and the three-legged former war dog, Miranda. Her client, Zoe Slim, is the emotionally disturbed daughter of wealthy parents who adopted her from a Russian orphanage. Of course, one of the most important characters is Grace’s new prosthetic leg, Oscar, named after the former Olympian amputee and now-convicted murderer Oscar Pistorious.
Last, but not least, the quirky city of Fort Lauderdale is a character unto itself. For anyone who has not spent time there, Fort Lauderdale is “Florida Man” in city form. “States of Grace” takes place in 2009 while the area suffered greatly from the real estate bust. Glaring wealth disparities, devastating pill mills, a dubious court system, and even stormy weather add character to the story. But it is the twists and turns that lead to Grace’s desperation to ensure that Zoe is not falsely convicted that drive the novel.
Anyone who favors colorful characters in a sophisticated hard-boiled in the genre of James W. Hall will enjoy “States of Grace.” Grace is a strong but flawed character aware that her personal characteristics place her at some advantages but also disadvantages. Despite her sometimes-rough edges Grace shows empathy and care for those in her life, and she receives it in return. The novel is a great start to an anticipated series featuring this colorful cast of characters.
Miller, Mandy. States of Grace. Literary Wanderlust, 2021.