THE LAST HEIR is the third in Chuck Greaves' series of legal thrillers that began with HUSH MONEY and GREEN-EYED LADY. The hero of the books, Jack MacTaggart, is of course a lawyer, but he's neither a bottom-feeder - a skip-tracer or an ambulance-chaser - nor is he Atticus Finch. He's not above mischief, on the one hand, and his ethics can be relative, shall we say, but he sometimes disappoints his clients when he turns out to have more principles than they expect him to. He's a stand-up guy in a tilting world.
THE LAST HEIR is, at least on the surface, about a power struggle in a California wine-making family. (Think, say, the Mondavi clan.) The aging pere, Philippe, has three kids, two boys and a girl. The older son has disappeared and been declared legally dead. The next in line drowns in a wine vat. And the daughter can't inherit, because her dad, a stiff and unyielding control freak, won't leave the estate to a woman, no matter how capable she is. There's a fair amount of bad blood, and complications set in.
The interesting thing to me, about this third MacTaggart book, is that it takes something of a right-angled turn from the first two mysteries. HUSH MONEY is about an insurance scam, and GREEN-EYED LADY is about a politician who gets caught with his pants around his ankles, but in both cases there's more to it than meets the eye. The thing is that in both books there's a large cast of shifty characters, any one of them with a motive to stab someone else in the back, but in THE LAST HEIR the suspect pool is very shallow - three to five at best - which makes it a closed system, in a way like one of those English country house mysteries, where it's either the least likely, or the most obvious suspect winds up being the next victim. The other tricky sleight, or reversal of expectations, the author pulls off, is that the crime doesn't appear to have a motive. Nobody profits by it. In point of fact, the other way around. The scheme, for lack of a better word, results in a net loss for everybody, which suggests none of them cooked it up in the first place.
Greaves winds the spring, and sets up the contradictions, and then at the end, when he shakes the tree, an enormously satisfying solution falls at your feet. And there's no cheating, no deus ex machina, no hidden secret held back until the final revelation. It's a terrific example of how character drives plot, even in a puzzle story.
Speaking of, MacTaggart is wonderful company. Jack's basically a wise-ass, and half the fun is listening to his voice. He's something of an unreliable narrator, not in the sense that he keeps anything from you, but that he's as much in the dark as you are. Which is another instance of how skillfully Greaves deploys the pieces on his chess board. You're not entirely sure the bishop always moves on the diagonal or whether the knight can jump an intervening pawn. In other words, MacTaggart begins to recognize not the pattern of a plot, per se, but the dynamics of inner history, family grievances, personal loss, the template of sorrow. One of the things about Jack himself that seems very true, to me, and true to life, is that he internalizes these other griefs. He lets them inhabit him.
He's also snort-coffee-out-your-nose funny - which, when you think about it, is quite possibly a defense mechanism, and a very sly way of revealing Jack's own character. Here he is on meeting the local eminence grise.
"There's a unique odor - an oleaginous mingling of dust and wood polish, incense and candle wax - that's instantly familiar to anyone, anywhere, who was raised in the Catholic faith. I'm thinking they must manufacture it in the basement of the Vatican and ship it out to the various dioceses in fifty-gallon drums. If they were smart, they'd bottle the stuff and sell it as a perfume, or maybe as an aftershave.
"They could call it Guilt. They'd make a fortune."
There's a confidence, and an engagement, in the writing. Jack is both sympathetic, and the kind of guy who holds you at arm's length. You might say the same of the author. Chuck Greaves invites you in, he makes you comfortable in his invented world, you feel you're in good hands, and then he sandbags you. THE LAST HEIR fools you not because of its artifice, but because it's genuine. The characters who people the story aren't generic conventions.
This is a guy who gives good weight. It didn't surprise me to learn he'd been a trial lawyer, in a previous life. It did surprise me to learn he gave up his practice and left L.A. and moved to the boondocks and started a vineyard of his own, growing grapes.
Like being a mystery writer. Stony soil, but it pays off.
[I should explain, in the interest of full disclosure, that Chuck Greaves and I know each other personally, and even did an event together, at Collected Works bookstore in Santa Fe, back in the late spring, where we essentially spent an hour trying to crack each other up, like Bob and Ray, or Lucy and Ethel. Chuck is hugely personable, and tells very funny stories, many of the NSFW, but I hasten to assure you this has nothing to do with my giving his book a strong review. On the other hand, I do expect a case of wine one of these days, from his vineyard, Stark Raven.]