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Book Review: The Deep Blue Alibi by Paul Levine

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In Paul Levine’s novel Solomon vs. Lord, he introduced readers to the unlikely combo of Steve Solomon and Victoria Lord, mismatched Florida lawyers with little in common besides a passion for the law – and one another. The precise, sophisticated Victoria and the slovenly, haphazard Solomon made engaging foils for one another, somewhat in the vein of a contemporary Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (albeit both a touch more vulgar and provocative than Hepburn and Tracy were normally on film).

As their relationship took the expected turn from adversarial to romantic, Levine kept his story fresh by using his zany South Florida setting to his advantage (both the flash and the sleaze, as it were, of the South Beach scene). He also managed to keep the verbal interplay between the characters engaging and often hilariously barbed.

In The Deep Blue Alibi, Levine introduces the lovebirds to a new quandary: namely, how to live with each other. Victoria feels like the junior partner in their two-person firm, and senses that, whether intentionally or not, Steve isn’t working very hard to change the status quo. Steve, meanwhile, is too preoccupied with his own decision to challenge his father’s suspension from the Florida bar (for alleged misdeeds committed while acting as a state court judge) to notice or completely comprehend Victoria’s concerns.

Consequently, when Hal Griffin, a one-time business partner of Victoria’s father, is charged with murder, Victoria steps into the breach – ostensibly by herself. Griffin is accused of murdering an EPA official. In a twist on the “closed room” murder so identified with Agatha Christie, the crime occurred on Griffin’s yacht while the two men were out at sea and Griffin was attempting to bribe the guy to go along with his plans for a huge offshore resort and gambling establishment supposedly designed to be connected to a coral reef. Nobody else was supposed to be onboard the boat, the EPA official was shot with Griffin’s spear gun, and the police didn’t find anyone else on the yacht when Griffin crashed it into a Florida beach.

The evidence, while admittedly circumstantial, clearly points toward Griffin’s guilt. But Victoria believes he’s innocent – at least, innocent of murder. Unfortunately, her investigation will bring her closer to uncovering some personal family secrets that she’d perhaps prefer not to know. As she and Steve chart their independent, if overlapping, courses of action, they end up testing the strength of their relationship as well. Of course, the fact that Griffin’s son is a seafaring hunk and that one of the possible murder suspects is one of Steve’s many former girlfriends doesn’t help matters much.

The Deep Blue Alibi is an entertaining, witty comedy caper with legal implications. This isn’t a novelization of Law & Order; it is far more akin to the Tracy/Hepburn vehicle Adam’s Rib. Still, Levine – a former trial and appellate attorney himself – creates a solid underpinning for the really important antics. The trial sequences largely take a back seat to such things as Solomon and Lord’s visit to a nude club where they must interview their client (as well as Victoria’s mother) completely in the buff or Steve’s various encounters with people who aren’t particularly interested in his continued well-being.

A touch more introspective than the first book, The Deep Blue Alibi is consequently not quite as humorous. Of course, maintaining any relationship tends to be more difficult than the flush of adventure associated with a new one, and that’s Levine’s challenge now. He’s got to keep Solomon and Lord not only interesting but entertaining, and it can be a challenge to find new ways to create romantic tension between a couple whose principal entertainment value was in the quality and quantity of their bickering. Call it the Moonlighting effect: Cybil and Bruce were never better than when they were apart, although it rapidly became difficult to justify keeping them apart and then it became even more difficult to muster tension once they were together.

Here, Levine plays the “equal partner” card to justify separating his romantic leads and having them both question the value of their relationship and whether it is “worth” it. He is apparently hard at work on a third installment in the series, and I have to wonder whether he might not be better served to now switch from the Tracy/Hepburn template to something else: say, for example, the Nick and Nora Charles motif of the Thin Man films. Nick and Nora bickered constantly, but their relationship was never in doubt and in fact was presented in such a playful manner that it was impossible to ignore the mutual twinkle in their eyes – they simply enjoyed baiting one another, and it was part of what they did to keep the relationship “fresh.”

Perhaps that is part of the struggle in contrasting The Deep Blue Alibi with its predecessor. In Solomon vs. Lord the characters went to bat for one another and Victoria threw a prospective husband over for Steve, the beach bum lawyer whose ramshackle offices were over a modeling agency. To revisit the underpinnings of the relationship just rings a touch hollow, especially since the rest of the novel is quite entertaining. Hopefully, the duo’s next adventure will eschew the romantic butterflies in each character’s stomach and focus instead on building tension in some other way (while keeping the characters bickering, of course). Despite the flaws, it still sparkles with promise, humor, and more than a dash of suspense. Recommended.

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About Bill Wallo