BOOK REVIEW: ‘Bear Is Broken’: Family Secrets Uncovered as San Francisco Lawyer Is Shot, and His Inexperienced Younger Brother Investigates

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Bear Is Broken': Family Secrets Uncovered as San Francisco Lawyer Is Shot, and His Out-of-the-Limelight Brother Investigates
  For reasons I can’t completely articulate or explain, Lachlan Smith’s legal thriller “Bear Is Broken” (Mysterious Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic Inc.,  272 pages, $24.00) reminded me of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 classic noir novel “The Big Sleep” twice (in 1946 and in 1978) filmed in Hollywood.


Perhaps it was the delightfully decadent Sternwood family in Chandler’s novel, roughly comparable to the wealthy Lockes in Smith’s debut novel set in 1999 San Francisco. The Lockes  — Gerald, Greta, Christine and Keith — are powerful influences on Teddy and Leo Maxwell, and their father, jailed in San Quentin for the murder of their mother when Teddy and Leo were children. 

Leo Maxwell grew up in the shadow of his older brother, Teddy, a successful yet reviled criminal defense attorney who made enemies almost as quickly as he scored acquittals. One acquittal, in particular, of an accused cop killer, turned the SFPD permanently  against him. The two are at lunch one day when Teddy, about to give the closing argument of his current trial that afternoon, is shot with the shooter escaping without Leo being able to identify him. 

The attempted slaying leaves Teddy  in an induced coma. Leo quickly decides that that the search for his brother’s shooter falls upon him and him alone, as his brother’s enemies were not merely the scum on the street but embedded within the police department as well.  In a San Francisco minute, Leo realizes that the list of possible suspects is much larger than he could have imagined.
The deeper Leo digs into Teddy’s life, the more questions arise: questions about Teddy and his ex-wife, questions about the history of the Maxwell family, even questions about the murder that tore their family apart all those years ago. And somewhere, the person who shot his brother is still on the loose, and there are many who would happily kill Leo in order to keep it that way.


The comparison with the Sternwoods of “The Big Sleep” and the Lockes of “Bear Is Broken” can only be taken so far; in fact, most readers will see Mickey Haller — the “Lincoln Lawyer” of Michael Connelly’s Haller novels — in Teddy, 37, turning 38, who inspired the dozen-years-younger Leo to become a lawyer, fated to always be in the shadow of his notorious brother. With his brother out of action,  Leo tries to convince the law firm’s staff, often with humorous details, that he’s got legal chops that are adequate for the cases he’s inherited from his brother. Readers will discover, as I did, that Smith has the literary chops to make “Bear Is Broken” a success.About the Author

Lachlan Smith was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and received an MFA from Cornell. His fiction has appeared in the Best New American Voices series. In addition to writing novels, he is an attorney practicing in the area of civil rights and employment law. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
In his own words.  from Amazon’s Lachlan Smith page:

“I’m a lawyer who writes novels. I was a Richard Scowcroft Fellow in the Stegner Program at Stanford and afterward graduated from law school at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall. While in law school, I worked at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. From day one, I knew that I wanted to write about that world.


“I’m an entertainer, not a documentarian, so nothing in the books comes from real life, most of which wouldn’t be believable as fiction, anyway. What is real in the books is the drama of idealism colliding with the moral ambiguity of criminal law, and the sleepless anxiety of a young lawyer who has taken on far more than he can handle. I can assure you that Leo’s practice is a good deal more exciting than the practices of most lawyers I know.

“Look for Lion Plays Rough, the sequel to Bear is Broken, in February 2014. I’m told by those who ought to know that the second book is even better than the first…Happy reading!”   //


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