In Ron Liebman’s amusing novel Death By Rodrigo we meet two low-rent criminal attorneys: Michael “Mickey” Mezzonatti, and Salvatore “Junne” Salerno Jr. Junne. The latter narrates the story and is a never-married closeted gay man who constantly worries that his true sexuality will be found out. Mickey is twice-divorced with no children and a steady string of women who come his way. Mickey himself hasn’t quite accepted Junne’s sexuality and keeps trying to set up his best friend up with women as if sexual persuasion was a matter of meeting the right woman.
These two boyhood pals joined the police force together, went to law school together, and opened a law practice together. Their clients are mostly pimps, drug dealers, thugs, and hookers with names like Slippery Williams, Little Chip, and Buffalo Reds. Mickey and Junne know they aren’t cut out for work at a “white-shoe” law firm. They know their role in the system and they’re more than comfortable with it. They especially relish it whenever they are able to beat a district attorney with an Ivy-League education.
One of their clients is Hector, a low-level drug dealer who Mickey and Junne manage to get off on a technicality over the search warrant for his house. Upon his freedom, Hector recommends their services to one of his bosses. Rodrigo the Salvadoran drug boss was arrested on an outstanding warrant and now simply wants to make bail so he can flee the country, returning to San Salvador.
Mickey and Junne know that getting Rodrigo out on bail will be next to impossible considering he is a suspected drug lord. But they are given a very large fee and try anyway. After their request for bail is denied, they are visited by a mysterious gentleman who goes by the name W.D. Smith. When Mr. Smith informs the two just how they will get Rodrigo freed or else, they start to realize they are in over their heads.
Liebman, a senior partner in a law firm in Washington, D.C., is an engaging storyteller with a lot of knowledge of the inner workings of the legal system that he puts to good use here. It’s fun for the reader, and clearly fun for Liebman, to follow these two unpolished but street-smart attorneys and their sometimes hilarious escapades on behalf of their clients.
Told in a colloquial style, the reader is constantly immersed in the conniving duplicitous world that Mickey and Junne inhabit. Typical of Liebman’s style is his description of how Councilman Thurgood Rufus Brown became Judge Brown, the bane of the D.A.’s office. “For the governor, turning Councilman Brown into Judge Brown was a no-brainer. Think about it. Gone is elected official Brown, telling his constituents, Don’t you be voting for none of them white devils up there in the state capital. Hell, they don’t know you livin’ down here when the money flows for municipal projects. None a that money’s comin’ down here to you; you know that. And by putting a brother on the bench from one of the worst areas of Camden, the governor may have placated some of the inner-city downtrodden; they might even vote for him the time comes he needs to seek reelection.”
The conflicted lives of Mickey and Junne, coupled with the lively digressions and plot twists as they juggle their clients’ cases, keep the plot moving along at a fast pace. All of it eventually winds its way back to support or confound Mickey’s and Junne’s attempts to find a way to free Rodrigo from jail and thus save their own lives. How all these slick machinations work out is a pleasure to watch unfold. Liebman ties enough of the threads together to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion while leaving the door wide open for a sequel.
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