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ILLEGAL is not a Solomon vs. Lord novel. Paul Levine,
creator of the unique attorney duo who fought for justice with
almost as much passion as they fought each other (and often
hilariously so), has created a new mythos, one closer to his
Jake Lassiter series than to Steve Solomon and Victoria
Lord. His new protagonist is attorney Jimmy “Royal”
Payne. While his previous creations made South Florida their home
base, Payne is headquartered across the country from them in Los
Angeles. The change of locale is accompanied by a darker tone,
which is not to say that ILLEGAL finds Levine’s well of
humor to be dry. Payne uses humor more as a weapon than as a
conversational instrument, unlike the characters who populate the
author’s earlier works. And with good reason.

We come to find out that Payne has experienced a devastating
personal tragedy, one that has cost him his family and apparently
his judgment. As the book begins, Payne is recruited ---
“coerced” may be a better word --- into entrapping a
judge in a bribery scheme. He is successful, but, as with many
things with which Payne is involved, it backfires badly on him,
more so when he is accused of diverting some of the bribery money
for himself. The accusation is career-threatening, all the more so
because it’s true. On the run from the police, Payne crosses
paths with a 12-year-old Mexican runaway who is in even more
trouble than he is.

Tino Perez and his mother, Marisol, have been forced to flee their
native Mexico and use a notorious coyote to negotiate the illegal
crossing into the United States. Mother and son become separated
along the way, with the result being that Tino suddenly finds
himself penniless on the streets of Los Angeles without papers or
guidance. His only hope is a business card that his mother slipped
him shortly before they lost touch, bearing the address and phone
number of a “powerful” attorney: J. Atticus Payne, who
had assisted a group of migrant workers in attaining legal status
in the U.S. But when Tino ultimately arrives at Payne’s place
of business, he is disappointed to find a disheveled office and an
even more down-at-the-heels Payne. Himself on the run from the
police, Payne quickly though inadvertently places Tino in even more
jeopardy than he was in previously. Still, Tino notices one quality
that his mother had valued above all others: Payne is a man who
keeps his promises, and she would describe him as a real

For reasons of his own, Payne agrees to accompany Tino on a
clandestine trip back to Mexico, hoping to retrace Tino’s
path so they can locate the coyote that disappeared with Marisol
and ascertain her whereabouts so that mother and son can be united.
Such a task is not easy. Payne and Tino doggedly pursue
Marisol’s path along a desolate landscape littered with false
starts, bad luck and danger at every turn. Marisol, for her part,
is being held as a de facto prisoner on a farm that provides the
sole income for a small California town and where the word of Sim
Rutledge, the owner, is law. Payne and Tino speed toward an
uncertain rescue and a deadly, tragic climax where much, but by no
means all, is resolved, while more than one innocent life hangs in
the balance.

Those familiar with Levine’s past work will find that his
ever-present penchant for accuracy in the settings of his stories
has reached new heights. The varied backdrops of ILLEGAL are more
exotic than those featured in his previous novels. For example,
Levine could have phoned in a standard border town description in
which Payne could have run wild; instead, he takes him down
dangerous side streets away from the casual tourists to a bowling
alley where bowling is a mere side business. As one reads the book
and follows in the footsteps of Marisol, Payne and Tino, the
feeling is inescapable that Levine’s research wore out more
shoe leather than word processing keys. This is true in particular
of the slaughterhouse scenes, which will have you at least
considering a change in dietary habits. Most significant, however,
is his presentation of the problem of illegal immigration. While
the illegal immigrants themselves are portrayed in a sympathetic
light, Levine does an excellent job of highlighting the issues
surrounding them.

The combination of real-world situations, nail-biting suspense and
a new character in the Levine mythos make ILLEGAL a title for your
must-read list.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011

by Paul Levine

  • Publication Date: March 24, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam
  • ISBN-10: 0553806734
  • ISBN-13: 9780553806731