Denver Bar Association
June 2006
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Book Review: The Mourning Sexton By Michael Baron

by Marshall Snider

As lawyer-novels go, The Mourning Sexton is your standard "Harvard educated lawyer, former U.S. Supreme Court clerk, makes it big, gets into drugs and prostitutes, embezzles client funds, goes to federal prison, adopts Orthodox Judaism while in the joint and comes out a better man" story. David Hirsch is the fictional St. Louis lawyer in this tale who manages to get his law license back after his release from prison.

Instead of his former high-powered law practice, Hirsch now schleps Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases for his friend and mentor, Seymour Rosenbloom. In fact, Hirsch needed a mentor; it was the only way the Missouri Supreme Court would let him back into the law and Rosenbloom must sign every pleading and supervise every case.

Hirsch is not doing too badly, all things considered, when Abe Shifrin, a member of Hirsch’s synagogue, accosts him after services one morning. Shifrin is there to say the Jewish prayer of mourning on the third anniversary of the death of his daughter, Judith. Judith died in a single car accident and Abe asks Hirsch to file a wrongful death case so as to obtain "justice" for his daughter. This is not the kind of work Hirsch does, but as a favor he agrees to look at the file, planning to refer the case to a personal injury lawyer.

When he looks at the file, however, Hirsch realizes that the statute of limitations on wrongful death actions in Missouri is three years. He figures Shifrin is too late to file, which would get Hirsch off the hook. Unfortunately for Hirsch, the Hebrew calendar is lunar while the Gregorian calendar, on which statutes of limitation are figured, is solar. The third anniversary of Judith’s death for which her father was saying a prayer is actually two days before the more sectarian statute will run. It is now too late to refer the case, and Hirsch hastily slaps together a suit against the manufacturer of the car Judith was driving, as well as the manufacturers of the car’s air bags and tires. He beats the statute of limitations by 30 minutes.

It turns out that Judith was clerking for a powerful U.S. District Court judge at the time of her death. Not only that, but she was driving the judge’s car at the time of the fatal accident, with the judge in the passenger seat; it was after the office holiday party and His Honor had had a few too many. The judge survived the car wreck. Coincidentally (or so it seems), at the time of the accident the judge was handling a huge multi-district product liability class action suit against the tire manufacturer Hirsch has just sued.

As Hirsch looks into the case he discovers a few odd facts. He hires a pathologist to give an expert opinion on the mechanism of Judith’s death as a result of the accident. "Accident?" the pathologist says, "what accident?" In the doctor’s opinion Judith was strangled, and was dead before her car hit that tree. Hirsch then learns that Judith took a very unusual interest in the product liability class action, directly contacting employees of the tire manufacturer on her own, for reasons that are not immediately apparent.

To complicate matters, Abe Shifrin has Alzheimer’s disease and loses the capacity to consider the very generous and very urgent settlement offers of the wrongful death defendants. The defendants are even kind enough to contact Abe’s sister to arrange for her to file suit to get a guardian appointed for Abe, so the case can be settled.

Even after the settlement, however, Hirsch can’t leave the case alone. There are too many oddities and he feels an obligation to Judith to uncover the true facts surrounding her death. His continued investigation leads him down a path of corruption and multiple murders that is developed by the author in a very skillful and entertaining manner.

Michael Baron is the pen name of St. Louis attorney Michael A. Kahn. His publicity compares him to Scott Turow. In fact, Baron (or Kahn or whatever he likes to be called) spins a very good yarn. The clues pile up, but the answers are not obvious. The reader must keep turning pages to find out where this is all going. And along the way Baron’s protagonist must face a number of moral dilemmas as he wrestles with his past and his attempts to redeem himself, both as a lawyer and as a human being.

This book is well worth placing on your summer vacation reading list.

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