Cruel Justice was the first of my novels that I really liked. Not that I disliked my previous novels, but I never sent one off without a deep-seated feeling that I still had a lot to learn about writing. Actually, I still feel I have a lot to learn about writing. But this book was the first time I finished one and thought, "Hey -- that wasn't half bad."
The genesis of this story is all too easy to discern. My first son was born a few months before my first book, Primary Justice, was released. By the time I was writing this book, I had a daughter as well. Is it any surprise that this book is all about fatherhood? The epigraph from Lord Byron says it all: "Yet in my lineaments I trace/Some features of my father's face."
The central case Ben tackles (based loosely on a real-life case) involves a developmentally disabled young man accused of murder. Because a court rules that he is not competent to assist in his own defense, he spends 10 years institutionalized, but never tried (yes, this really could and does happen). This boy's only cheerleader is his father. The father, having read about Ben's previous success (in Perfect Justice) coerces Ben into representing his son. The murder occurred in the clubhouse of a country club, where we are introduced to a man struggling to be a good father and connect with his adopted son. And we learn more about Ben's troubled relationship with his deceased father. In the first book, we learned that his father cut him out of his will and that Ben feels estranged from him. Here we learn that there is far more to this complex relationship than we realized.
But then, isn't there always?
Taking the term "legal thriller" to heart, I injected a far more significant suspense/thriller aspect than I'd used in previous Kincaid novels. I thought it worked terrifically, so that became a component of future Kincaid stories. The whole book just came together for me: interesting characters, exciting plot and a strong theme weaving it all together. In one of the few reviews I remembered 10 minutes after I read it, Publishers Weekly wrote: "Bernhardt skillfully meditates on fathers good, fathers bad, and fathers never known."
But to me, the book is a love letter and a promise to my children. So you can see why I like it.