Charles Cutter is the nom de plume for R. Charles McLray, an attorney in East Lansing, Michigan.
“However, Burr shines at trial. His snide, often mumbled commentary becomes fitting when he’s facing a judge who clearly doesn’t like him and who’s more interested in wrapping things up quickly. The story’s legal banter is snappy, vibrant, and not without humor; one of the prosecutor’s objections against Burr, for example, is that “Counsel is flirting with the witness.” Burr’s investigation does eventually get a breakthrough, and there’s an effective plot twist near the end. His rapid-fire questioning of defendants on the stand, though, is nothing short of exhilarating.
A mystery with a protagonist who’s truly in his element inside the courtroom.”
– Kirkus Reviews
Cutter’s debut legal thriller tells the story of a litigator in Mackinac Island, Michigan, who defends a man accused of murder.
Attorney Burr Lafayette is called to a bar called The Pink Pony by police chief Art Brandstatter, who suspects that Burr stole a pink hobbyhorse that normally hangs above the bar’s door. But inside the bar is the scene of a far more serious crime: Jimmy Lyons lies dead by strangulation. Burr is initially reluctant to help accused murderer Murdoch Halverson, but he ultimately relents, as he needs the money; after all, he owns a building in which the elevator doesn’t even work. The case against Halverson is strong, due in part to a reputed affair between Jimmy and Halverson’s wife, Anne. But Burr is determined to exonerate his client, even if it means that he has to start his own investigation and find the killer himself. The novel spotlights a lawyer who isn’t the most likable guy: he’s cynical in nearly any situation and tends to leer at women (although he does at one point reflect on his own “shallowness”). Cutter adds a few details to give him a modicum of sympathy, such as his faithful Lab, Zeke, who has more personality than Burr’s rarely seen 9-year-old son, also named Zeke, who’s a child of divorce. However, Burr shines at trial. His snide, often mumbled commentary becomes fitting when he’s facing a judge who clearly doesn’t like him and who’s more interested in wrapping things up quickly. The story’s legal banter is snappy, vibrant, and not without humor; one of the prosecutor’s objections against Burr, for example, is that “Counsel is flirting with the witness.” Burr’s investigation does eventually get a breakthrough, and there’s an effective plot twist near the end. His rapid-fire questioning of defendants on the stand, though, is nothing short of exhilarating.
A mystery with a protagonist who’s truly in his element inside the courtroom.
Pub Date: June 15, 2015
Page count: 310pp
Review Posted Online: July 9, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015
In Cutter’s (The Pink Pony, 2015) legal thriller, a Michigan woman is charged with murdering her husband a year after his apparently accidental death.
In 1990, Burr Lafayette is a commercial litigator, but he willingly takes a criminal case, as he has to pay the mortgage on his rundown East Lansing, Michigan, office building. His new client is Lizzie Shepherd, whose husband, Quinn, died by drowning a year ago. Lizzie’s under arrest for murder, however, as cops claim that she actually killed Quinn with a canoe paddle. A woman named Margaret Winston recently discovered the paddle, along with apparent evidence that it’s the murder weapon. Prosecutor John Cullen has a strong case; there are rumors that Quinn had been unfaithful to Lizzie, seemingly corroborated by eyewitness accounts of a confrontation between Lizzie and an unknown woman sitting with Quinn in a bar. Burr has his work cut out for him—particularly when it turns that Lizzie is withholding information from him, which leads to more than one surprise in the courtroom. Still, the lawyer is determined to prove that Quinn’s death was indeed an accident, or that someone other than Lizzie killed him. The silver-tongued attorney’s best bet is to extract information from uncooperative and/or deceitful witnesses on the stand. This is the second novel featuring Burr, who repeatedly displays his legal aptitude here. The realistic but entertaining story takes readers through various battles of wits, such as an evidentiary hearing and jury selection, as well as Burr’s fight against a request for exhumation of Quinn’s body. Even when he stumbles in the courtroom, he finds a way to recover. The mystery, meanwhile, is genuinely engrossing; readers, like Burr, may suspect that Lizzie really did kill her husband. The best secondary characters are those in Burr’s corner, including his legal assistant Eve McGinty; law partner Jacob Wertheim; and loyal dog, Zeke. Although a few boating scenes are strikingly detailed, it’s Cutter’s razor-sharp dialogue in the courtroom that’s truly unforgettable.
A smashing murder mystery featuring a quick-witted protagonist.
Publisher: Kurti Publishing
Review Posted Online: Aug. 25, 2019
A Michigan litigator tackles a murder case, coming to the aid of a man charged with killing his wife, in this fourth installment of a legal series.
Burr Lafayette has been working on a condemnation case for nearly seven years. The National Park Service has tried condemning all private property on uninhabited South Manitou Island, but Burr’s client, Helen Lockwood, will neither yield nor sell her cherry orchard. Burr has delayed a trial, which is essential since Helen has been missing for the past year. Her husband, Tommy, and her younger sisters, Karen Hansen and Lauren Littlefield, can’t decide if they want Helen legally declared dead so that they can sell the property to the Park Service. Sadly, someone ultimately finds Helen’s body on the island inside a shallow grave, with a bullet hole in her head. Shortly after, cops arrest Tommy, as his pistol was the homicide weapon and witnesses supposedly saw him riding the ferry on the day of her murder. Though criminal law isn’t Burr’s forte, he’s handled murder trials before. Tommy accepts his offer to help, and Burr sets about establishing reasonable doubt by tracking down “a few suspects.” Certainly, there are others who wanted Helen to sell the property and may very well have resorted to homicide. But the lawyer has a long road ahead: Aside from prosecutor Peter Brooks’ damning evidence against Burr’s client, Tommy is withholding pertinent information that makes it harder to defend him. He may even be hiding details that could prove he’s guilty.
Cutter’s recurring protagonist is not without his flaws. In one instance, Burr tries acquiring Helen’s death certificate before the coroner has even performed an autopsy, much to the chagrin of Tommy. But the attorney’s charm outweighs his more deplorable traits, and furthering his appeal are the delightful individuals surrounding him. His law partner, Jacob Wertheim, is an exceptional researcher but appalling in the courtroom while legal assistant Eve McGinty is perpetually assertive. The story’s highlight is Burr’s yellow Lab, Zeke, who’s typically at his side, including when the attorney becomes stranded overnight on South Manitou and later when he tries to get drinks (for the dog, he orders “Water. Straight up”). The mystery is sound, as Tommy may be the killer but the suspects Burr points his finger at have equally credible motives. While the lawyer is unquestionably taking the case seriously, his involvement in several humorous scenes gives the story a welcome lightheartedness. For example, his conversations with Eve via car phone (the tale is set in the 1990s) are comical: “You sound like you’re calling from a tornado,” she says during one of the few times she can hear him. Similarly, the narrative is largely free of violence, notwithstanding the murder. Burr’s courtroom squabbles with Brooks are more akin to bickering than heated arguments, and the protagonist tends to relieve stress by breaking pencils. The final act consists of Tommy’s trial, where Burr shines brightest, managing such obstacles as sustained objections and surprise witnesses with composure and panache.
Captivating characters augment a taut, alluring mystery.
Page count: 260pp
Publisher: Mission Point Press
Review Posted Online: May 10, 2020
Michigan litigator Burr Lafayette defends a husband accused of murdering his wife.
In 1977, Brian Dunn’s rifle discharged and killed his wife, Claudia. Police and the coroner ruled it an accident, as Brian had claimed. But now, six years later, he’s arrested for murder. Burr, though not a criminal lawyer, reluctantly agrees to help since his old flame Suzanne Fairchild is Brian’s sister-in-law. It only takes a bail hearing for Burr to realize the judge and the prosecutor on the case are both pigheaded and shady. New evidence, however, suggests that Brian, on the night in question, intentionally pointed and fired the rife at Claudia. Burr can try to dispute that, but he isn’t prepared for surprise witnesses and a judge who incessantly overrules his objections. The fact that Brian—and possibly Suzanne as well—is withholding pertinent info makes Burr’s work even harder. The litigator must rely on his legal skills and wit to keep his client out of prison. As in earlier Burr-centric novels, Cutter, whose last book was Bear Bones (2020), turns a relatively simple legal case into a gleefully complex mystery. The story’s abundant courtroom scenes give the story gravitas. Burr doesn’t dramatically extract confessions on the stand; rather, his courtroom examinations and cross-examinations work in his favor as often as they damage his case. The dialogue pops even outside the court, as in Burr’s rapid-fire questioning of a man who borrowed Brian’s rifle not long before Claudia’s death. Cutter’s narrative maintains a relentless edge; numerous characters lie; and an unsettling ambiguity hangs over everything.
Another superb, realistic installment of this Midwestern legal thriller series.
Review Posted Online: May 14, 2021
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021
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