Amy Gutman's Equivocal Death is an impressive and surprisingly multi-layered debut novel by a writer of considerable talent and insight. On one level, it is a taut legal thriller set in the world of a white-shoe New York law firm. Gutman tells the story primarily through the experiences of Kate Paine, a young and ambitious associate at the firm of Samson & Mills, who becomes entangled in the shocking deaths of two of the firm's partners in the space of less than two weeks.
In the course of telling that tale, however, Gutman also delivers a meditation on the law and politics of workplace sexual harassment and, more generally, on the ongoing challenges facing women in big-firm law practice. All of this is told against the backdrop of a perceptively drawn portrait of life in New York for a single, young, and overworked lawyer.
A good legal thriller is at once smart and fast: It sets the scene (law firm, court, DA's office, what-have-you) in informed and economical detail; and it quickly creates and maintains the suspense and suspicion needed to keep the pages turning. Equivocal Death does both.
Gutman, a graduate of Harvard Law School who practiced for four years in New York before quitting to write, gives an account of life at Samson & Mills that should ring true to anyone who has spent much time at a large New York firm. The long hours, the pressure of deadlines, the politics of the partnership track, the camaraderie among associates that can only come from enduring document production duty together, and the atrophy of a young associate's life outside the firm are all conveyed smoothly and credibly. And the richness of that detail does not slow the unfolding of the plot itself, which proceeds with an impressive pace and energy.
The suspense begins literally in the first few pages, when Gutman introduces us to a nameless male figure preparing to launch some kind of attack on Madeleine Waters, a partner at Samson & Mills. When Waters turns up dead shortly afterward, the reader can't help but suspect virtually every male character in the book.
Gutman holds that suspense in part by confining the story to a short timeline the events take place almost entirely in the space of one month and in part by sprinkling brief vignettes featuring the nameless male character throughout the book, each one providing new clues to the killer's identity.
Equivocal Death tells more than one tale, however, and it may be best not as a murder mystery but as a story about workplace sexual harassment, and about the continuing social and political costs that attend reporting sexual harassment and assault, even (or perhaps especially) for women as successful and upwardly mobile as Kate Paine.
Gutman portrays not only the trauma of the attack, but the alienation, fear, and frustration that women can experience when attempting to report such attacks. These themes are not new, to be sure. But by striking just the right tone neither trite nor preachy Gutman's account is at once compelling and fresh.
Equivocal Death is also noteworthy for its rather damning indictment of the burdens that big law firms place on the lives of their attorneys. Implicit (and, indeed, sometimes explicit) in Gutman's account of life at Samson & Mills is a view that it is in the nature of a large law firm to suck the life from its lawyers. Gutman advances this view in part by introducing happy, satisfied, and well-adjusted characters who are not lawyers, to serve as foils for Kate and her harried, overworked colleagues at the firm.
One such character, a serene seascape photographer living on Long Island who was once married to Madeleine Waters, tells Kate that the death of Madeleine's "soul" began years before she was actually murdered. It began, he explains, when Madeleine gave Carter Mills, the managing partner at Samson & Mills, "the right to tell her who she was and what she was worth. It wasn't her own opinion that counted, but his. She may have looked like she was alive, but she wasn't really, Not in the ways that matter, She hadn't been for a very long time."
This not-very-veiled condemnation of big-firm life runs throughout the book to varying degrees, and surely is the product of Gutman's own experience as an associate at a big New York firm. Readers may or may not agree with the full measure of Gutman's critique, but that it is strikingly presented can hardly be denied. And it certainly contributes to making Equivocal Death an entertaining read.