The Final Case, by David Guterson

Trigger warning for discussion of extreme child abuse and religious abuse.

I don’t know what to make of The Final Case, by David Guterson. I’ve been trying to resolve the disparate parts of the narrative since I finished it last night. To be honest, though, the book feels unfinished. It feels half-baked, if I’m being blunt, because it doesn’t do anything with the real inspiration for the book’s premise other than to use it as a vehicle for the narrator to talk to people’s ruminations and justifications for some terrible thoughts and actions.

The narrator’s father Royal is a lawyer, years past retirement age but still going into the office because it gives his life meaning. These days, Royal doesn’t have much business other than a few public defender gigs when the official office has too many cases to handle. Due to his age and increasingly poor health, the narrator is helping out his father by driving him around and, after his father gets a case from the public defender’s office, takes on some investigative tasks by conducting and recording interviews. This case, which turns out to be Royal’s last, is a horrific case of death due to child abuse. The evidence against Royal’s client and her co-defendant is utterly damning. The defendants themselves have such repellant beliefs that it will be next to impossible to garner any jury sympathy. Royal takes the case, however, because even though he knows his client is guilty as hell, he believes enough in the system to make sure that this client gets a capable defense.

I thought that this case and the narrator’s relationship with his father would be the main focus of The Final Case. (I mean, look at the title!) For the first half of the book or so, The Final Case is about Royal’s final case. After Royal dies, the narrator—and the narrative—come unmoored. We get some of the narrator’s thoughts about life, his parents, his wife, but the case is almost completely forgotten until it comes around again at the very end of the book. This second half confused me. I was really interested in listening to Royal’s thoughts about fairness, justice, and punishment. I was also interested in listening into the trial testimony and learning how the defendants came to their abusive parenting philosophy. I was far less interested in listening to the various, unconnected people the narrator talks to for the rest of the book.

I supposed the only conclusion I can come to about The Final Case is that it’s a book about a writer who listens to people, seemingly without judgment. It was strange to have such a transparent reading experience, in which the narrator was simply a conduit between me and the other characters in the book. I wish that the narrator had been a little more writerly in arranging the various conversations and interviews into a more cohesive whole, for easier digestion by me, the reader.

The other thing that bothered me about The Final Case (and it really bothered me) was the way that Guterson used a real case for a premise and then never really engaged with the issues the case raises. Although the narrator gives some voice to the victim, she never really comes to life. Almost everyone else gets to have their say, but the victim never really does. This lack of engagement—or refusal to engage—with what happened with the victim and her case made me angry with Guterson and the book.

I plan to read other reviews of The Final Case, because I hope someone can help me figure this book out. That said, I don’t recommend this odd, unsatisfying novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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