Anne Levy’s Last Case
Review by Dan Cooper published in the Nov./De. 2014 issue of The Champion, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
To say Anne Levy’s Last Case is a novel about a public defenders to say Moby Dick is a novel about a whale. Barbara Sattler is not Melville but she is a fine writer whose novel has multiple, interconnected themes with memorable, realistic characters. Those themes include the universal traits of loyalty, friendship, perseverance and empathy. However, the readers who will most clearly enjoy this novel are those who have spent time as criminal defense lawyers or, in particular, as public defenders.
Anne Levy has been in the trenches for two decades as a public defender. She loves her job but not necessarily herself as the ravages of too many trials, and a serious illness, have taken their toll. Levy’s battles are familiar to all defense lawyers. She fights not only with judges and prosecutors but with clients and, as all those familiar with bureaucracies understand, with her petty, by-the-book boss. What keeps Anne going is her sense of fairness and compassion as well as the obvious respect she has for her co-workers. This camaraderie with those co-workers will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a public defender’s office.
Beyond camaraderie, Sattler has described perfectly the working conditions of most public defenders. The offices are gritty and the furniture spartan. The caseloads, of course, are meant for eighty-hour work weeks. It is an environment designed for discouragement. But Sattler has created an atmosphere where the reader understands what drives these lawyers. They appreciate each other and they appreciate, as trite as it sounds, being liberty’s last champion. Of course, humor and a wicked sense of the bizarre help Anne survive. Sattler’s description of Anne and a co-worker discussing how to tell another lawyer that bathing is a job requirement is hilarious. Being able to see the humor in the midst of misery is a characteristic necessary for survival and Sattler makes that clear.
One complaint about Anne Levy Last Case is that it is too short. The vignettes and public defender stories about “my guy”, clients whose self-destructive abilities defy description, are in fact described with clarity and compassion. The public defender who filed a motion so that his client could have a final visit with his dog before heading off to a long prison term is also described by Sattler as the man who has slept with nearly every woman in the public defender’s office. In the context of this novel, and the chaos of the job, there is something perfect about that juxtaposition. Any reader will wants additional, similar war stories.
But Anne Levy’s Last Case is not just for lawyers. Anyone who is interested in how the criminal justice system works, or doesn’t work, will enjoy this novel. And Anne is a protagonist for whom we all hope good things happen. In some ways, her surprising romance in the novel is Sattler’s way of saying that good things do happen to good people. And those that take on the burden of defending society’s dregs are, by definition, good people. We know that is not always true but, after reading Anne Levy’s Last Case, it is nice to think so.
In Sattler’s (Dog Days, 2013) courtroom drama, a veteran public defender revisits an old case as she faces the end of her career.
Anne Levy must decide whether to resign or be fired after two decades working as a public defender in Tucson, Arizona. The immediate cause of her downfall is a personality conflict with a recently arrived, by-the-book boss, but it quickly becomes clear that Anne also has a number of personal and professional secrets. Sattler uses frequent flashbacks to show Anne’s neurological disorder, her many failed relationships, and the case that nearly brought an end to her career. Despite Anne’s prickly, often abrupt attitude toward other people in her life, she’s an engaging character as she grows to accept her humanity without ever losing her edge. The author also vividly draws the supporting characters, including Gina, Anne’s secretary and staunchest ally; and Brian, who broke up with Anne when she always put her work first, but remains a reliable, platonic friend. The descriptions of the jails, courtrooms and public defender’s office are also strong, leaving readers smelling the stale coffee and fearing the short-tempered judge, just as the characters do. It’s sometimes difficult to tell when the narrative moves between a flashback and the present, and these transitions could have been more polished. But Sattler is skilled at dialogue, effectively using it to develop the characters: “Look Alberto, I’m not your social director. I’m here to help with your case,” Anne tells a new client; in another exchange, her advice is: “If you’re going to hide out in Mexico to avoid trial, stay there.” The end result is an enjoyable, realistic depiction of one woman’s midlife reassessment of herself and her choices.
A highly readable novel of courtroom and interpersonal drama.