“Stunning… [Isaacs] has created an ingenious novel that breaks out of the mystery genre. In fact, it sets the genre – in which, typically, the killer is brought to justice – on its ear.”
Lee (née Lily) White is a defense lawyer practicing on Long Island. Into her life drifts Norman Torkelson, a career con man charged with strangling his latest mark. At first, the case seems open and shut. But just as Lee is resigning herself to a guilty verdict, she begins to have doubts. After all, what was Norman’s motive? Lee starts to wonder if her client is covering for the real killer, and in doing so, performing the first selfless act of his life. As the case unfolds, so does the story behind the story: Lee is a privileged child coming age on Long Island. Her parents are devoted to the pursuit of money and status. When Lee marries a scion of Long Island blue bloods, her life seems blessed. But is the sacrifice of her dreams worth the approval she garners from her parents?
>>Susan’s inspiration for Lily White.
I was never a virgin.
Okay: In the technical sense, of course I was. But even in my dewy days, I never gazed at the world wide-eyed with wonder. If I wasn’t born shrewd, at least I grew up too smart to be naive. So how come in the prime of my life, at the height of my powers, I could not foresee what would happen in the Torkelson case? Was I too street smart? Had I been around the block so many times that I finally lost my sense of direction?
A brief digression: Ages ago, soon after I became a criminal defense lawyer, Fat Mikey LoTriglio hailed me across the vast concrete expanse of the courthouse steps. “Hey, girlie!” His tomato of a face wore an expression that seemed (I squinted) amiable, pretty surprising considering he’d just been sprung from Elmira after doing two and a half years on the three counts of aggravated assault I’d prosecuted him for.
“Come over here,” he called out. “Hey, I’m not gonna kill you.” In Fat Mikey’s world, that was not hyperbole but a promise; he got busy straightening his tie to demonstrate he was not concealing a Walther PPK. “I hear you’re not working for the D.A. anymore,” he boomed. I strolled over, smiling to show I didn’t hold any grudges either, and offered my hand, which he shook in the overly vigorous manner of a man trying to show a professional woman that he’s comfortable with professional women. Then I handed him my business card. I was not unaware that Fat Mikey was one of three organized crime figures the cops routinely picked up for questioning on matters of Mob-related mayhem. To have Fat Mikey as a client was to have an annuity.
He glanced down at my card to recall my name. “Lee?”
Naturally, I didn’t respond “Fat?” And to call him “Mike” after having called him “a vulture feasting on society’s entrails” in my summation might seem presumptuous. So I murmured a polite “Mmm?”
“A girl like you from a good family -”
“Are you kidding?” I started to say, but he wouldn’t let me.
“I could tell you got class, watching you at the trial,” he went on. “You know how? Good posture – and not just in the morning. Plus you say ‘whom.’ Anyways, you really think you can make a living defending guys like me?” He didn’t seem so much sexist as sincerely curious. I nodded encouragingly. “This is what you had in mind when you went to law school?” he inquired.
“No. Back then I was leaning toward Eskimo fishing rights. But this is what I’m good at.”
He shook his head at my folly. “When – pardon my French – a guy’s ass is in a sling, you think he’s gonna hire a girl who says ‘whom’?”
“If he’s partial to his ass he will.”
Fat Mikey’s upper lip twitched. For him, that was a smile. Then, almost paternally, he shook a beefy index finger at me. “A girl like you should be more particular about the company she keeps.”
Years later, I would learn how wise Fat Mikey was.
Nevertheless, from the beginning I knew there were limits to keeping bad company. I could be sympathetic to my clients without getting emotionally involved: A lot of them had sad childhoods. Many had been victims of grievous social injustice, or of terrible parents (who were themselves victims of terrible parents). Still, I never forgot they were criminals. And while I may have delighted in a bad guy’s black humor, or a tough broad’s cynicism, I was never one of those attorneys who got naughty thrills socializing with hoods. You’d never catch me inviting a client – let’s say Melody Ann Toth, for argument’s sake – to go shopping and out for Caesar salads so we could chitchat about old beaux … or about what she might expect at her upcoming trial for robbing three branches of the Long Island Savings Bank on what might have been an otherwise boring Thursday.
For their part, most of my clients (including Fat Mikey, who retained me two years after that conversation on the courthouse steps) wouldn’t think I was exactly a laugh a minute either. Whatever their personal definition of a good time was, I wasn’t it. Unlike me, Fat Mikey simply did not get a bang out of crocheting afghans or listening to National Public Radio. With fists the size of rump roasts, Mikey looked like what he was: a man for whom aggravated assault was not just a profession but a pleasure. As for Melody Ann, with her pink-blonde hair that resembled attic insulation, the only reason she’d go shopping at Saks would be to knock off the Est‚e Lauder counter when she ran out of lip liner. My clients had no reason or desire to pass for upper middle class.
For that reason alone, Norman Torkelson was different right from the beginning.
Of course, a con man cannot look like a crook and expect to make a living. If Norman Torkelson had resembled the no-good rat he was, he would have been a sawed-off runt with a skinny mustache like a plucked eyebrow. But then the nine hundred or so women he had proposed marriage to would have told him: Get lost, creepo.
However, he was not sawed off; he was six feet five. Lucky for him, since in America everyone knows a man’s character increases in excellence in direct proportion to his height. Not that Norman was content with mere tallness; he was clever enough to trip over his own size-thirteen feet every so often, which made him … Some of the descriptions in the witnesses’ statements taken over the years from victims of his scams were: “sensitive,” “tragic, like Abraham Lincoln,” and (my personal favorite) “caring.” So all those women to whom he proposed said yes – Yes, my love! Yes, Norman! (or Yes, whatever alias he was using) – and got their hearts broken.
I wonder now: What if we hadn’t met in the Nassau County Correctional Center? What if he hadn’t been wearing the official uniform – pants and shirt in an orange that inevitably leeched the life out of every inmate’s face? Would I have wanted to trace with my fingertips the lines of his Mount Rushmore face? No. I would not have.
Still (before I leave the subject of color), even the vicious glow of that orange could not hide the fact that Norman’s eyes were such a startling blue they seemed more a Crayola than an eye color: Viking blue, a shade somewhere between royal and turquoise. If not for those eyes, would the hundreds of women thrilled to empty their bank accounts for him have found themselves destitute, suddenly dependent on disgusted relatives or the public dole?
However, let’s not go overboard on the blue eyes business. A con man cannot afford to be suspiciously handsome, and Norman Torkelson was not. First of all, he had a too teeny nose. Instead of the cute upward tilt you’d expect from a nose like that, it hooked; in certain lights, you’d swear Norman was half man, half parakeet. So not gorgeous – an asset to a con man because true beauty evokes curiosity. And not slick. At least, he didn’t seem slick. Like any professional swindler, he was just convincing enough to persuade a woman who had never met a man from Yale that he had gone to Yale.
Furthermore, a competent con man never overacts. Norman may have listened avidly when a woman spoke, but he never pretended to drown in the depths of her eyes; he didn’t shift around in his seat either, crossing his leg to hide an alleged erection. Oh, one more handy imperfection: He had a slight lisp.
I heard his first words as: “I thwear I didn’t do it, Mth. White.” He lowered his big head and whispered, “Jethuth!”
“It’s not me you have to convince, Mr. Torkelson,” I told him. “I’m on your side. It’s the D.A. who’s a problem.”
He clutched the top of the white Formica barrier that separates inmates from their visitors. “Please,” he begged me, “call me Norman.”
Amazing: He threw his entire being behind that request. His forehead furrowed, his shoulders tensed, his Adam’s apple bulged, every part of him seemed to yearn: Call me Norman.
A con man’s hokey trick? Absolutely. I tried to be cool, glancing around the visitors room, a huge space filled with rows of Formica-topped tables, which resembled a school cafeteria. However, instead of patrolling teachers there were armed guards carrying semiautomatic rifles, and closed-circuit cameras.
Despite the ugly publicness of the place, I felt a private flush of gratification at my client’s request: Please, call me Norman. Almost as if he had willed it, I actually eased my attach‚ case off my lap and set it by my feet, then pushed my chair back so he could get a fuller view: I carried on as if I were OD’ing on estrogen. I actually crossed my legs, movie starlet style, and began to inscribe a sexy O with my foot.
Naturally, all this took place within a microsecond. Then I realized I was being manipulated – which only proved to me what I’d already suspected. Norman Torkelson was not a great con artist. Just a fairly competent one.
“I was not – and I quote – conning Bobette out of her money!” he announced in that very instant.
“Norman,” I said, uncrossing my legs, “let’s get our priorities straight. The fraud by false pretenses charge is the least of your problems right now.”
“Bobette and I were friends,” he insisted. “She was lending me the money. I told her: ‘Have your attorney draw up the proper paperwork, with whatever interest you feel is fair. I’ll sign it. I won’t have it any other way!'”