In the fifth installment of Charles Cutters’ Mystery series that revolves around the Michigan attorney, Burr Lafayette, the flawed legal genius is undoubtedly a star in the courtroom, but his glow has started to diminish in light of his self-destructive habits. Without having read previous installments, the standalone story is a perfect start for readers venturing into Burr’s world of legal battles and vices. At the face of his newest battle is his client, Molly Fagan. Her husband, Nick, the owner of northern Michigan’s largest radio station, has died from a fatal heart attack and now she needs Burr’s legal skills to access his life insurance money. The case should be simple enough, –Burr is helping a seemingly grieving widow access her husband’s money– until the insurance company accuses Molly of murdering her husband. Molly’s innocence takes a further hit when county prosecutors arrest and charge her with first-degree murder. Embarking his protagonist on two intersecting battles — a courtroom drama and a drinking issue — Cutter’s novel merges career, mystery, and identity into a fast-paced narrative.
The novel begins with Molly and Nick out for a nice meal. Nothing about the situation— besides Nick’s rude behavior to the staff — is cause for any concern, but the single opening scene is the catalyst for the mystery that follows. Prosecutors believe that Nick’s heart attack was caused by Molly slipping poisonous mushrooms into his veal morel. Worse, the evidence is piling, mixed with rumors that Nick wanted to divorce Molly, and that she was after his fortune.
While the legal battle proves interesting, Cutter’s choice to explore Burr’s drinking issue proves to be the soul of the story. Most protagonists in mysteries are viewed through a heroic lens; Cutter’s use of an unconventional anti-hero adds further meaning and insight into this complex character, and further adds to the complexities of many struggling professionals. Burr’s alcoholism only spirals, evident in his constant barrage of drinks whether, at the yacht club or even at one point inside a strip club where a police officer takes his keys to prevent the intoxicated Burr from driving rather than arresting him for public intoxication. The subplot of alcoholism grows and like addiction, makes its way from Burr’s personal life into his career when the prosecutor, Oswald, makes a dig at Burr in the middle of the courtroom: “The point is you’re a drunk.”
Studies have found that lawyers are at a higher-risk for developing alcohol abuse in comparison to other professions, and the plot line offers a contemporary take on the profession as well as Burr’s identity. From a narrative standpoint, the incorporation of substance abuse even makes Burr’s point-of-view unreliable to those around him, and even to readers, thus adding another level of mystery to the novel.
But ambiguity is Cutter’s strongest tool within storytelling. The author successfully crafts a mystery that encompasses a murder mystery while simultaneously honing into the mystery of one’s identity. While Molly’s character is placed under a courtroom spotlight, Cutter, a master of layers, examines the intentions of the surrounding cast—including the ego-driven, Nick. With money involved, can anyone be trusted? Even the evidence is called into question as many individuals — including the life insurance company — have reason to want Molly to be found guilty. As readers peel back the layers of the mystery, they are ultimately forced to unravel the complexities of each of the characters, determining for themselves the intentions of these otherwise unreliable characters.
Within the obscurity of who can be trusted, the angsty and bitter tone of the third-person narrator proves to be the highlight. Like Burr, the narrator’s critical and pessimistic nature is sharp, and yet endearing. It’s a delight to read and keeps the various courtroom scenes enthralling.
Cutter’s storytelling is indeed captivating, offering an intricate set of plot lines. However, the prose feels interrupted at times with its lack of imagery and syntax choices. Notably, the descriptions of character movements tended to be repetitive, as evidenced with the frequent use of words like “pace”. Additionally, certain sentences felt redundant at times which hindered the rhythm of the otherwise charming story.
“I don’t have any money,” Molly paced back and forth across the deck… She paced back and forth across the deck.
Despite these choppy moments, Cutter’s greatest strength as a writer is his uncanny ability to teeter between mystery and psychology. Even after the courtroom drama has ended, Cutter cleverly leaves the door open for future installments. It is no wonder why fans of the mystery series continue to return, because even after the mystery is solved, the three-dimensional Burr and his complexities are not fully resolved. The anti-hero, a clever allusion to the poisoned meal that killed Molly’s husband. Perhaps in the next installment, readers can find Burr switching to a healthier beverage option.
Under the Ashes is available now from Mission Point Press.