When the law and jazz are entwined in a novel, it already marks the work as a different take on life. Author Michael Simmons, a retired lawyer with 50 years of experience, has written “Low Life Lawyer: In The Footsteps of Bechet,” a story with a protagonist who is also a lawyer, but deeply admires jazz icon Sidney Bechet, plays the clarinet and—well, one has to read this compelling and fascinating page-turner to appreciate the life that Simmons skillfully creates.
The story, set in England in the 1950s and 1960s, traces the rise and downfall of the elaborately conceived, colorful Richard Gregory. In a brief author’s note, Simmons insists that what he has written is “pure fiction.” He proclaims, “I certainly make no appearance in it nor do any of my clients, colleagues or friends.” He could have fooled me. I take him at his word, but the characters in “Low Life Lawyer” come to life so vividly on the printed page that they seem straight out of reality.
Simmons has also hit upon a snappy way of telling the story, and the method pulls one into the narrative, helps sustain interest and engenders wonder about what comes next. The author uses a three-pronged way of writing, which comes across as sort of a jazz rhythm in itself. There is a narrative voice interspersed with the individual voices speaking for themselves.
For example, when two characters meet, one will provide a first-person take on his or her reaction. Then we get the other person’s personal take, which is likely to reflect a very different perspective. The technique moves the narrative along swiftly and efficiently and is very different from an approach of one view in a very long section of a novel and then counterpointed by a very long alternate perspective. Simmons has found a way to keep the story clicking and make the reader eager to hear from the various people who become part of Gregory’s saga.
And what a saga it is! He rises with his considerable talent and wiles, including his sexual ability and desire to satisfy women with his vaunted technical expertise. Simmons recounts these sexual escapades with candor that sometimes renders them droll as well as erotic.
Step by step Richard begins to fritter away his advantages by compromising ethically and getting himself into trouble. As well as with respect to behavior as a lawyer, this includes marrying into wealth, a big mistake. But that route also feeds the novel’s originality. Unlike cases in which in-laws spell trouble, a bonding with his father-in-law occurs even while eventually being scorned by the wife and her mother.
Although one can predict some aspects of what will happen to Richard, there is pleasure in following his trajectory because of the skill the author demonstrates in his crisp development of the plot and his gift of using the right language, whether in the objective voice, or in the way every character’s self-expression strikes a true individual note in tune with how that character would speak.
Simmons cleverly accents the jazz theme with song titles as chapter titles, such as “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Keeping Out of Mischief Now,” “You Took Advantage of Me,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “High Society,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” etc.
Much is covered concerning ethics, relationships, struggle, society and conflict. There is humor, tragedy and ultimately a very sentimental ploy. I’ve probably told too much already—further specific revelations would be a spoiler.
I can heartily recommend “Low Life Lawyer: In the Footsteps of Bechet” as an entertaining, involving and smartly written novel with a mosaic of individual portraits and voices by life-like characters, especially that of the protagonist. (First Published in Great Britain in 2016 by the Book Guild Ltd. Available on Amazon and Kindle.) Reviewed January 31, 2017.