November 4, 1999
Alan Dershowitz’s Guilty Pleasure
By Alan Dershowitz
Where does he find the time? A typical day in his life, so it seems, includes several hours put in as defense counsel in a headline-making trial; a class or two taught at Harvard Law School, a few appearances on nationally televised talk shows, three or four lectures in Jewish communities around the United States, another chapter written in his latest book about the future of American or world Jewry, a couple of quickly tossed-off book reviews and newspaper columns, and, if there is any time left, a quick trip to Israel. Most people, you would think, would tumble into bed at that point. Alan Dershowitz sits down and writes a novel.
All right, so he doesn't write like Flaubert. His characters have the dimensions of a Moebius strip and his idea of le mot juste is the first cliche to come to mind. But what kind of objection is that? It reminds me of the joke about the man playing chess with his dog; when several onlookers express their amazement he tells them, "It's no big deal, he loses every time." And besides, I have a confession to make. When I tumbled into bed the other night with Mr. Dershowitz's new novel, it kept me awake until I finished it. Usually I fall asleep after 20 minutes of Proust.
It may not be literature, but "Just Revenge" has something that many better-written books never achieve: a genuinely original and intriguing situation. Had Mr. Dershowitz stuck with this situation and developed it thoroughly like the lawyer he is instead of crowding it out with a plot full of razzmatazz like the novelist he isn't, he might have written more than a tolerable one-night read. As it is, he hasn't done badly.
The situation is this: In a Boston suburb lives Abe Ringel, a hotshot criminal lawyer. A good friend of his is Max Menuhin, an elderly Bible scholar and Holocaust survivor who saw his large family in Vilna shot before his eyes as a teenager by a Lithuanian Nazi named Marcellus Prandus.
A gentle and well-mannered bachelor, Menuhin has for decades dreamed an empty dream of revenge, knowing that the chances of finding Prandus, who may have changed his name or not even be alive, are close to nil. In fact, however, Marcellus Prandus, having managed to emigrate to America after the war, has been living all these years in another Boston suburb.
One day Max Menuhin spots Prandus' American-born son Paul, who is the spitting image of his father (of whose wartime deeds Paul knows nothing), and is led by him to the murderer. But Marcellus Prandus, it turns out, is dying of cancer and has only a few months to live; simply killing him after he has lived a long and happy life in America would be insipid vengeance.
Max Menuhin debates what to do. His first thought is to murder Prandus' two sons and beloved grandson while the old man is still alive in order to cause him the kind of suffering that he caused Menuhin; yet since this strikes Menuhin as morally problematic, he consults an ex-student, a fellow scholar named Danielle Grant. Grant, an amateur video buff, comes up with a brilliant plan. There is no need to murder anyone, she explains. It is enough to make a fake video clip in which Prandus' sons and grandson appear to be murdered, kidnap Prandus, show him the clip, tell him what has happened is retribution for his own crimes and, having reduced him to emotional and psychological agony, permit him to commit suicide -- which he will surely do rather than go on living with his guilt and a terminal illness.
The plan works perfectly. Grant prepares the video. Then she and Menuhin abduct Prandus at pistol-point, bring him to a country cabin, tie him to a chair, dupe him with the faked footage and offer him arsenic pills if he signs a note saying that he has taken his own life. Shattered, Prandus agrees and swallows the arsenic. Menuhin returns home and phones the police to inform them of the whereabouts of the corpse. The call is traced to him, and he is arrested and charged with felony murder. Abe Ringel agrees to defend him. Ringel's first step is to obtain immunity for Grant in return for telling the court the truth.
The stage is set for Menuhin's trial -- and a grand trial it should be with all the legal and philosophical questions that "Just Revenge" has raised up to this point. Menuhin has kidnaped Prandus, of that there is no doubt, but has he murdered him? Is it murder to deliberately drive a man to suicide by confronting him with his own criminal past? Or does the murder consist of driving him to it by means of a lie? But in that case, had the video been true -- had Menuhin really killed the younger Pranduses -- would he, though guilty of their murder, have been innocent of Marcellus' ? And if Menuhin is technically guilty, can the jury acquit him anyway on the grounds that he acted with justification by avenging another murder that occurred 50 years before and that the legal authorities did nothing about? Can a crime passional be something that a man has dreamed of committing, day in and day out, for a half-century? What legal precedents exist for determining such issues, and how would they play out in an actual confrontation between a skilled prosecutor and defense attorney?
One would think that Mr. Dershowitz would have made the most of this, using his erudition and experience as a criminal lawyer to create a fascinating courtroom drama in which the jury is presented with serious legal, intellectual and moral arguments by both sides. Unfortunately, this is something he did not have the patience for (or suspected that we, his readers, didn't). The trial scenes in "Just Revenge" are rushed, superficial and about as true to actual courtroom procedure as an installment of "L.A. Law," and they are resolved not by legal reasoning and strategy but by a series of improbable deus ex machina events, among them a last-minute surprise witness, an attempted murder in the courtroom and a melodramatic reconciliation between Paul Prandus and Max Menuhin.
It's too bad that in this, the climactic section of his novel, Mr. Dershowitz chose to concentrate on what he is bad at (describing people and their actions) at the expense of what he is good at (explaining and concretizing the subtleties of the law). Still, let us give credit where credit is due. He kept me up till 1 a.m. And he probably stayed up that late writing.
Alan Dershowitz will read and sign his book on Nov. 14 at 10 a.m. at the Westside JCC.