The Mongol Reply
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2005
Five Star/Tenko Books
US Hardcover First
333 Pages; $25.95
Publication Date: October 17, 2004
Date Reviewed: January 22, 2005
Benjamin Schutz is a Shamus- and Edgar-award winning mystery writer who, back in the late 80s and early 90s, penned the five-book series featuring Washington DC PI Leo Haggerty. He then took a ten-year hiatus from novel writing to focus on short stories and, yup, you guessed it, won another slew of awards for those. Now he's back in the full-length novel arena with 'The Mongol Reply', a stand-alone book about divorce that, were it to be required reading for those contemplating marriage, would likely permanently condemn nuptials to the recycle bin.
Tom Tully, ex-football player turned football coach, wants a divorce from his wife Serena, and custody of their two children. Well, that might be downplaying it a bit. Tully's a hot tempered, cold hearted, manly man who, like a line backer rushing the quarterback, wants more than just a sack. A broken limb would be good, but decapitation would be even better. Tully wants more than just a divorce; he wants revenge and nothing short of total humiliation and devastation for his wife. So he hires DC divorce attorney Albert Garfield, who turns out to be just the man for Tully's job. Nicknamed Agent Orange for the ruinous destruction he delivers both inside and outside the courtroom, Garfield's tactics and Tully's temperament are perfectly united. Serena, a depressed, mentally unstable but generally good-hearted wife and mother, needs to suit up and play tough just to survive.
Schutz builds his plot with rapid pace - courtroom shenanigans, disingenuous and ill-motivated spin, a little behind-the-scenes manipulation - and he builds his characters with equal speed. Tully, Garfield, Serena initially appear as one-dimensional players in these nasty post-nuptial wars. It's only as the narrative unfolds that they begin to take on greater depth and their personas expand to more full-bodied characterization.
The true protagonist of 'The Mongol Reply' turns out to be Doctor Morgan Reece, called in by the court to evaluate and recommend custody for the children. A man haunted by his own emotional devastation, Reece provides a moral center for the novel. Together with Lou Carlson, Serena's attorney (her second - the first was an inconsequential do-nothing easily manipulated into capitulation by Tully and Garfield) Reece provides a much-needed bellwether of reason and sanity, an anchor in reality for what would otherwise be a wholly sensational story best told in the likes of The National Inquirer.
Schutz writes crisp, fast-paced prose that seems initially to underplay emotion and propel plot. In the early chapters of the novel, I found myself disappointed at the broadly drawn characters and incensed at the ever-growing heap of outrageous injustices that mounted without challenge. But as I read on, an involving emotional resonance developed, the characters blossomed into real people, and the pacing, while not slackening, became manageable and evermore believable. What began as an interesting and dark, but uninvolving, read turned into a satisfying and compelling experience. So much so that the ending hit me like a slap in the face - a dark and truly crushing turn of events. Schutz, like his creation, attorney Garfield, can manipulate the reader from surface to depth with a sneak-up-on-you cleverness and engaging pace. It's only when you've read the final page that you realize how deftly you've been drawn in, and what a precise and sure hand has done the drawing.