The Puppet Master (Brooks/Lotello Thriller #0.5), by Ronald S. Barak

Nine stars

In a prequel novel to his legal thriller series, Ronald S. Barak offers readers a high-impact piece that spans the entire police procedural and legal processes. When a prominent US senator is murdered, the D.C. community takes notice. Metro PD Detective Frank Lotello is assigned the case and begins a thorough investigation. Lotello, a recent widower, is still struggling with the loss of his wife and must redefine his job as he raises two children. After two other people with ties to America’s financial fortunes are slain, people begin to wonder if there is a spree killer on the loose. Even more baffling is the message left about the victims deserving to die as ‘Ryan’ did. When a man is seen uttering similar messages around the Capitol, he is taken into custody and eventually charged with the murder. However, things are not as cut and dry as they seem. U.S. District Judge Cyrus Brooks soon learns this, having been assigned the murder trial. When the Public Defender advocates a justifiable homicide defence, many look shocked, though the constitutionality soon becomes apparent. While awaiting the trial, Detective Lotello is contacted anonymously with information that may shed some light on the murders, something that could provide significant reasonable doubt. While dubious in its ethical nature, Lotello and Brooks converse, applying pressure to allow additional investigations. Could there be someone else behind the killings, using the accused as a patsy? Once the trial begins, Brooks takes control in the courtroom, allowing strong arguments on both sides before he tosses the case to the jury. It is here that things get even more interesting. Brooks, Lotello, and many others await the decision of the twelve, whose verdict could have high-reaching results. Barak does well to create a thriller whose slow development acts as a great marinade before delivering a impactful final twist. Recommended for those who love legal thrillers, particularly the reader who found Barak’s first novel (which follows this one chronologically) to their liking.

Ronald S. Barak crossed my radar a while back, when he introduced readers to his Frank Lotello/Cyrus Brooks duo. This legal thriller series, while still in its infancy, has some great plots, enveloped in great police work and supported by wonderful narration. Barak steps back from his previous publication to offer the reader a better look into the lives of his two protagonists. Lotello is a man who is still reeling from his wife’s death, something the reader can ascertain as he has numerous conversations with her throughout the case. Lotello balances work with raising a family on his own, though does not let either task hamper the other. With an acute sense of all aspects of a criminal investigation, Lotello is like a dog with a bone, chasing leads and following up on sketchy people of interest as he seeks to uncover the truth. His diligence may not always pay-off, but Lotello’s impact can be felt throughout the novel. Lotello is contrasted nicely by Judge Cyrus Brooks, a man whose legal training has led him to create a no-nonsense courtroom. Brooks knows the rules and sticks to them, usually, while also realizing that not all defendants (or their counsel) are created equally. A fan of explaining every step of the legal process to the jury, Brooks educates the reader alongside them, as the case progresses. His handle of the court will likely impress the reader as they meander through all the evidence on offer. The story here is quite well developed, advancing on many levels through chapters of different lengths. Some are simple phone conversations while others are thorough explorations of the courtroom developments, through banter between counsel and witnesses. Barak keeps the reader captivated throughout, as the evidence mounts and the jury is presented with much. By the time the case goes to the jury, the reader likely has their own impressions. Little is left to chance while being sequestered, with a wonderful exploration of deliberations before a final set of twists to end the case. I’ll surely re-read the follow-up novel to get the full impact of the series, happy to have found another author who knows how to write comprehensive legal/courtroom thrillers that leaves no stone unturned.

Kudos, Mr. Barak, for your stellar writing. I hope others find this series in the coming months. I must ask… why release the prequel after the series debut? This piece is so full of important information that is relevant what ended up being the debut. I am baffled!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: