REVIEW: Graffiti

John E. Roper – July 1, 2014:

US Review of Books, July 2014

“She’d wanted to be a judge for as long as she had been an attorney. She knew full well what she was up against. The old-boy network was too loose a term.”

As any psychologist can attest to, people tend to be complicated. To truly understand someone’s actions requires not only the knowledge of what has been done but also the reason behind it. Determining the motive of a criminal is sometimes a key element investigators use in solving a case, and most mystery novelists justifiably capitalize on this. However, more accomplished writers often probe deeper into the lives of other characters in their books, giving readers insight into the various motives of some if not all of the major players in the drama. This is what Benke accomplishes in her rich and satisfying tale.

A resident of one of the nicer neighborhoods in San Diego is brutally murdered one night close to a wall that overlooks a major thoroughfare. The murder is seen, though, by an aging muralist who wants the wall as a canvas for what will probably be his last major work. In an unorthodox ploy to make sure he can have the freedom to paint in peace, the artist works a secret deal with the prosecution to allow him to recreate the murder, complete with the murderer’s face, on the wall for all of the city to see.

At its most basic level this novel is a typical murder mystery. However, Benke’s book goes further by exposing readers to the world of graffiti and those who engage in it. The average motorist who passes by a garishly decorated retaining wall or under the swirl of spray-painted lettering on the overpass may be annoyed at the colorful defacing of public structures, yet he is also likely to be ignorant of any hidden messages within what he is seeing and the complexity of reasons behind the design. Through the course of the story, Benke explains the difference between taggers (those who simply leave their codename or initials in a variety of locations) and graffiti artists who tend to create larger pieces such as murals. Additionally, she explores the wider range of motivations that can cause a person to not only break the law but also risk their lives by placing their art in highly visible but often difficult to access spots. To accomplish this, Benke gets into the heads of both a young tagger called Slic and an older muralist named Colon, showing their somewhat similar yet still unique motives for doing what they do.

As fascinating as her look at graffiti is, where Benke really shines is in her insider take on California law, the state’s attorneys, its law enforcement divisions, and its judicial system. She joins the ranks of other writers like John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Steve Martini who have drawn from their legal background to craft believable novels about how lawyers build their cases and behave in court. Like her protagonist Judith Thornton, Benke is a former prosecutor; and just as Judith dreams of becoming a judge one day, Benke’s own career path took her from her role as a California Deputy Attorney General to her current position as an associate justice with the California Courts of Appeal. She uses this intimate knowledge of both her state’s legal environment and what might motivate attorneys and judges to give her story much added depth.

Graffiti is not a legal thriller like Grisham would write. Instead, it moves at a slower pace and is more in line with something lawyer-turned-novelist Erle Stanley Gardner of Perry Mason fame might have written. But the book’s insightful treatment of well-drawn characters driven by easily-identifiable motives, along with its believable legal backdrop, make its creator a writer to watch.