Fifty Fifty by Steve Cavanagh

5th October, 2018. Two 911 calls are made at roughly the same time, from the same house in Franklin Street, New York City. 23.35pm – Alexandra Avellino reports that her father, Frank, has been murdered, her sister Sofia did it and she’s still in the house… 23.36pm – Sofia Avellino calls, her father has been murdered by Alexandra and she’s still in the house…

It’s a bold assertion but Cavanagh is rapidly becoming the go to guy for legal thrillers, his novels matching the best of Grisham and Turow. The latest Fifty Fifty is about two women accused of murdering their father, one is a sadistic killer the other innocent, but which is which? Alexandra or Sofia. The DA doesn’t care, he’s looking to send them both down for the crime but, if not, either will do, as long as he gets a conviction. The women’s defence attorneys, Eddie for Sofia and Kate for Alexandra, are both disturbed by the idea that the truth will get lost in the circus of a high profile case because Frank Avellino was mayor of New York until November last year. The crime was brutal and frenzied and there’s a fortune in inheritance on the line, not to mention the possibility that a dangerous killer who could get away with it. Fifty Fifty is hugely entertaining, there’s plenty of drama, jeopardy and tension and Cavanagh directs his wry humour at some of the absurdities of the law. Reader becomes jury siding with one defendant, then changing allegiance, before switching back again. Cavanagh manipulates the evidence as a good defence council would in court. Fifty Fifty is a heady mix of brutal murder and judicial shenanigans – delicious and thrilling. Cavanagh has the reader in the palm of his hand.

‘They’re back’
No, not an alien invasion just the most terrifying words in the world for an attorney – the jury is coming back with THE VERDICT. Eddie prides himself on knowing what a jury is thinking, he knows whether a client is guilty or innocent:
‘My biggest problem as a lawyer is I want the guilty to get punished and the innocent to go free.’
Sergeant Bukowski, NYPD first Precinct, calls Eddie Flynn when the murder occurs. Other cops are likewise calling their go to lawyers – information for a consideration, (bribe). When Eddie arrives the front desk is like a lawyer’s convention; each gets to pitch the suspects for the right to represent them. Eddie manages to convince Sofia to hire him. Meanwhile, Theodore Levy is mobilising the full weight of his leviathan law firm behind getting Alexandra to take him on. Levy tells his junior Kate that the victim, Frank, was:
“Stabbed fifty-three times, my dear. And we are going to represent his eldest daughter. Both his daughters were arrested at the scene, and each of them is blaming the other for the murder. One of them is lying, and our job is to prove that it’s not our client. Understand?”
That casual sexism and lack of moral compass infuse the story. Kate has an uphill battle with bullying and harassment from Levy. The problem is he can sink her career without a trace but she might just have one way to save herself and her client and screw over Levy. It’s a big play.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives; Eddie, Kate and “She” the anonymous voice of the killer. Sofia is damaged and has problems which won’t play well in court, Alexandra was daddy’s golden girl and she confident and composed. What both lawyers begin to suspect is that one of these women planned to be here and has been manipulating the whole thing from the start. “She” is prepared to kill again if anyone gets in her way. “She” didnt just kill her father she eviscerated him. “She” may be evil incarnate. There are plenty of revelations about the past as the tension and darkness in the story gradually ramp up.
Fifty Fifty is the return of Eddie Flynn, likeable and easy to get on with, a former Brooklyn con artist turned lawyer, (some might argue a natural progression). Eddie has a healthy disregard for his current profession; ‘For a lawyer, every case is a game.’ He loved exploding the pomposity and the insider privilege with his pointed cynicism.

In the novel the pursuit of justice is one tiny part of the process. This is a game where money and reputations can be made, securing a conviction matters more than securing the right conviction. The truth is obscured, if not buried, by process and prejudice in a way that should trouble readers, even if you’re not planning a murder right now! It’s easy to see how this system could chew people up. Cavanagh expresses a concern for how the law operates in America through his characters, from the plea bargaining that ensures innocent people plead guilty to corporate railroading of the process at trial to issues of racism and sexual harassment. There are plenty of thought provoking themes along side the fun here but the touch is always light.

Fifty-Fifty puts the reader at the heart of the dilemma the two lawyers, Eddie and Kate, face as they believe/disbelieve/believe in their clients. Naturally, clues, red herrings and sleight of hand pepper the story. I see why readers flock to Cavanagh’s novels you will too if you read Fifty Fifty.

Orion 9781409185864 paperback, 3/9/20

Reviewed by Paul Burke
Personal read  4½*
Group read       5*