Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Table of contents
James Chandler Opens the Deceptive Case
Many are the authors who try and find their place in the legal thriller genre, a domain demanding a lot of concrete knowledge and rock-hard facts. It seems, as a rule, the authors who come up with novels truly worth reading time and time again are the ones with some personal experience in the matter, something James Chandler puts to extensive use in his debut novel, Misjudged.
The first entry in the Sam Johnstone series, the book begins by introducing us to the man himself, a disabled war veteran longing for nothing more than a simple and peaceful life after many years of faithful service. In the hope of realizing such an impossible ambition, he takes up a job as an attorney at a boutique law firm in a small Wyoming town.
Unfortunately for him, not long after his arrival the quiet rural town proves itself to be anything but peaceful. A local woman is found brutally murdered, and the police are quick as ever in finding a suspect to place on trial: Tommy Olsen, a known delinquent who was also sleeping with the woman in question.
Though Johnstone refuses to touch this case at first, he eventually yields and meets with Tommy, if only to ensure he has legal representation. The more he learns about the case, the deeper the investigation goes and the more facts are uncovered, it becomes increasingly obvious to Sam things are not as they seem… but not everyone agrees.
Running headlong into the walls of politics and bureaucracy, he realizes Tommy’s only chance at justice is for the truth to come to light… and few people apart from Sam seem interested in it. As the life of an innocent man hangs in the balance, the real killer is out there, among the citizens, watching it all unfold as predicted.
A Procession of Hints and Clues in Misjudged
Different people enjoy thrillers for different reasons, but I think most will agree the best stories in the genre manage to unravel complex plots at a rapid pace without confusing the reader with unnecessary elements. Though it does take a few pages before it gets going, when Misjudged hits its stride it’s right there among the best in the genre.
After we get through some rather understandable establishing paragraphs and introductions, the game begins as James Chandler begins to place small clues here and there as the story unfolds. Some of them I noticed, while others only became apparent to me later on once the payoff to their setup had been revealed.
Some of the clues and hints we’re given are red herrings, but the author isn’t insultingly liberal with them; there are just enough of them to stop you from ever feeling one hundred percent confident about the results of your own investigation.
Speaking of which, I’ve always maintained mystery stories which give the reader a fair chance at solving the puzzle before the end deserve a few points for this fact alone. From start to finish I felt myself involved in the search for the truth alongside Sam, making him feel more like a partner than a protagonist I was merely following.
I thought Chandler showed the mastery of a veteran author in how he developed the plot from one twist to the next, surprising me on more than one occasion with his ability to pull the rug out from under my feet. The quick pace makes it seem like the ending to the spectacle comes all too soon, but it delivers as big of a punch as one can expect from the final reveal of a great thriller.
The Realms of Legality and Humanity
With this being a legal thriller, there naturally comes the ancient questions: how much legalese is there, and how deep does the author dive into this world? While some authors go off the rails into precise descriptions and definitions, Chandler shows a considerable amount of mercy toward readers such as myself who are only minimally-versed in the subject.
He keeps the legal speak and terms to what feels like a minimum necessary for the story to progress and for Misjudged to be classified in its genre, and when more complicated terms and concepts come up he does offer simple explanations. James Chandler‘s personal experience as an attorney has evidently given him a precise idea of what to reveal and omit in this domain.
Though we do also get exposed to various elements of politics and bureaucracy, especially as they impede Sam’s progress, it’s always on a superficial level and in layman’s terms. They’re around to serve as plot devices more than anything else, though there is also a bit of social commentary to be found in them as well.
Despite the story advancing at a fairly rapid pace, the author finds the time to introduce a relatively wide cast of characters, describing most of them sufficiently to make them unique and recognizable, starting with Sam himself. He’s definitely not perfect, but he’s a very capable and interesting protagonist to follow, with some of the interspersed bits about his background story being interesting in their own rights.
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We learn about the rest of the people in the town (most of them suspects) more through their words and actions than anything else. Chandler makes apt use of those two elements alone to give them personalities, and of course, never misses the chance to cast even a slight tone of suspicion on them.
The Final Verdict
Misjudged by James Chandler is about as good of a debut as an author could dream of. It’s an enthralling and intelligent mystery with plenty of twists and a protagonist I’m eager to see in action again, all while keeping the technical details on an easy level.
If you’re looking for a legal thriller bound to keep you hooked with a complex murder mystery you stand a chance of solving alongside the protagonist, then I strongly recommend this book for you.
James Chandler is an American author who, before taking up the pen, served in the United States military for twenty years before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel of air Defense Artillery.
His career as a writer began in 2020 when he published Misjudged, the first legal thriller in the Sam Johnstone series. The second book, One and Done, came out soon after, and the third, False Evidence, in October 2021.