A trial lawyer’s memoir
Edward Z. Menkin
Champion Magazine Book Review
Reviewed by Matthew T. Mangino
Dashiell Hammett had Sam Spade; Raymond Chandler had Phillip Marlow; Ross Macdonald had Lew Archer—Edward Z. Menkin has himself.
After more than 40 years practicing criminal defense in Syracuse, New York, Menkin has self-published his memoir, “Death on the Doorstep & other stories: A trial lawyer’s memoir.”
With four decades of experience as a criminal trial attorney, Menkin has a lot to draw on. Menkin also has a PhD in English Literature and has used that training to weave an interesting conglomeration of war stories into and entertaining read.
The reason I bring up Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald is that, at times, Menkin’s writing has the gritty, smoky, alcohol drenched feel of noir fiction.
Very early on Menkin hits his readers with “Murder and I have had more than just a passing acquaintance over the years.” He describes an armed man, high on PCP, wondering the streets as “not selling subscriptions to Better Homes and Garden.” Menkin quipped, after a “guy and his wife” were arrested for shooting an assailant with his own gun in self-defense, “I must have missed that extra credit class in law school which taught Advance Prosecutorial Thinking.”
Menkin’s style holds nothing back and he is not ashamed to admit it. He starts off his memior with “I’m an egoist and I know it.” Menkin shares some of his more entertaining cases with his readers. In all there are 11 stories, most of them a few pages. The two marquis stories, “Death on the Doorstep” and “Senor Sal’s turn in the barrel” are considerably longer, and make up a majority of the storytelling.
The author did not shy away from what most practicing attorneys would consider taboo—taking on the court. He described a judge he was practicing in front of as “He was a smart guy, the smartest judge around, all you had to do was ask him.” This is from a guy who tells his readers very early on, “I’m in love with myself. Always have been.”
He displays that affection when he tells the story of a judge who attended a presentation by Menkin and said the quote Menkin used was “great.” He asked Menkin “Who said that?” Menkin replied, “I did.”
With all his bluster Menkin could also show humility. In “Death on the Doorstep” Menkin writes in great detail about a case he took on as co-counsel with no fee. Menkin concludes with, “I’d like to tell you . . .” that he did something really cutting edge to convince the jury, conducted some dramatic cross-examination or presented a mesmerizing closing argument. Instead, he candidly admits, “I could have read the Betty Crocker recipe for orange-glazed chicken with broccoli and mashed potatoes and the jury would have come to the same conclusion.” Raymond Chandler would have loved that line.
Criminal defense attorneys need to have a certain swagger, they need to believe in themselves and they need to believe in their clients. Menkin understands that balance between ego and humility. Above all, trial attorneys need to be storytellers and Menkin excels at storytelling.
Menkin’s translation of complicated legal strategy into easy-to-understand terms, often in a salty way, is compelling. He suggests that jury selection is not just important, “it was the whole case.” Then in his Hammettesque style he describes his ideal juror as a person “of ample girth, comfortable shoes, a sense of humor, and teenage daughters at home.”
If you’re a fan of courtroom war stories or noir detective fiction “Death on the Doorstep & other stories” is the book for you.
(Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. in New Castle, PA. He is the author of The Executioner’s Toll. You can follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org)