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The Mayor of Lexington Avenue.

The Mayor of Lexington Avenue By James Sheehan

With his debut novel, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue, Tampa-area attorney and author James Sheehan has created a world of people and places that most Florida lawyers will recognize.

We see the prominent Miami attorney, well-connected to the power brokers but disconnected from his feelings and his past. We recognize the wildly successful personal injury/ criminal attorney whose surgically-enhanced likeness is plastered on every billboard along the Treasure Coast. We meet the once-promising small-town public defender too far gone to save an innocent man from Death Row. And we see the blue-blooded state attorney who will do anything to gain power and keep it.

By fully redeeming only one of these characters, Sheehan has created a kind of cautionary tale about how those in our profession can head down the wrong path.

Although the book's storyline fetches a little too far at some points, it is refreshingly unpredictable. The book is set primarily in Bass Creek, Florida, a washed up little town near Lake Okeechobee and the fictional Okalatchee River.

The story begins in 1986, when a slow but decent convenience store clerk, Rudy Kelly, is arrested for a gruesome murder he did not commit. Seeing the case as his ticket out of Bass Creek, the state attorney, Clay Evans IV, enlists the help of a seedy local sheriff's deputy to cajole a confession. Evans also bullies the coroner into burying key evidence that might exonerate Rudy.

Rudy's mother Elena scrapes together $15,000 to retain "the best attorney in the area," Tracey James, who runs a moneymaking mill of referral sources, experts, and insurance adjusters from her offices in Vero Beach. But after exhausting the retainer, James withdraws from the case, leaving Rudy's fate in the hands of the alcoholic public defender.

The story shifts 10 years ahead and 150 miles south to Miami, where prominent civil litigator Jack Tobin contemplates the big-city attorney's dream: cashing in big-firm equity and gearing down to a slower life in the sticks. At his old pal the governor's request, he reluctantly takes the vacant state attorney's job in Bass Creek.

The reader is goaded into suspending his or her disbelief when Rudy Kelly turns out to be the son of Jack Tobin's childhood friend, Jimmy, who is introduced in a series of flashbacks set in 1960s New York. Jack has not seen Jimmy since their late teens, when Jimmy took the rap for a car they stole together. When Jack guiltily returns to New York for Jimmy's funeral 30 years later, he learns of Rudy, whose execution at Starke is drawing near. Jack sets out in a race against time to exonerate Rudy and repay a debt to his childhood friend.

Sheehan has been a trial lawyer for almost 30 years, so perhaps it is no surprise that some of the best scenes in The Mayor of Lexington Avenue occur in chambers and in the courtroom. Before abandoning Rudy's defense, Tracey James skillfully wins a key pretrial hearing against Clay Evans, with Sheehan deftly describing each side's strategy as the narrative quickly unfolds.

Sheehan takes the trouble, and effectively so, to explain the vagaries of appellate practice as Tobin tries to overturn Rudy's conviction. A scene at the Supreme Court of Florida is described in its most interesting detail. Sheehan has also given Florida's wildlife and natural beauty a significant role. Those who appreciate glades and gators will be pleased with the message of freedom and peace in nature.

The story does fall a little flat in spots. Evans and the evil sheriff 's deputy, Wesley Brume, are always bad, and never really develop beyond two dimensions. And a cameo by the Mafia seems contrived. But for the most part, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue is an extremely promising first effort that ably holds its own against other popular legal thrillers.

And in the end, the reader likely will identify one other recognizable person--the lawyer who yearns to write a book. Unlike most, however, Sheehan has actually done it, and has done it well.

Jason Kellogg practices commercial litigation with Hogan & Hartson, LLP, Miami, and is a former member of the Journal and News Editorial Board.
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Author:Kellogg, Jason
Publication:Florida Bar Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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