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FIGHTING CHANCE by Jane Haddam: Book Review

The Armenian-American community in Philadelphia is centered around Cavanaugh Street.  The Armenian Apostolic Church is located there, home to Father Tibor Kasparian.  Cavanaugh Street is home as well to Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent who is now a consultant to police departments across the country.

Father Tibor has been the priest of the church for many years, and he is considered by all to be cultured, intelligent, and extremely compassionate.  So how did it come to be that this man has been arrested, accused of murder in the first degree?

Fighting Chance, the title of Jane Haddam’s latest mystery, is exactly what Father Tibor is not giving himself.  He was found in the office of Judge Martha Handling, covered in her blood.  Even worse, someone took a video of the cleric that seems to show him repeatedly beating on the judge’s head with a hammer.  Why would he have done that, and who could have taken that video?

Judge Handling was not a popular or respected member of the judiciary.  Recently the state of Pennsylvania had turned its prison system over to a private firm, and it is to that firm’s benefit to fill every prison bed since they receive a daily stipend for each occupied one.  It was well known that Ms. Handling’s sentences for juveniles was so out of line with her those of her colleagues that many people thought she was corrupt and being paid to give harsh prison terms. 

The state police had begun an investigation into the judge’s conduct, but the case wasn’t ready to be presented to the district attorney’s office.  In the meantime, Ms. Handling continued to send juveniles to serve the longest possible time for the most minor crimes, where other judges would have looked for alternatives in hopes that the offenders could be rehabilitated outside of prison.

The Armenian community in Philadelphia is an extremely close-knit one.  All of its members are stunned by the accusation that their priest murdered a judge and equally stunned by the fact that he refuses to defend himself.  More than that, he refuses to speak to anyone at all, even his close friend Gregor Demarkian. 

After refusing the services of an attorney who is a member of his church and refusing to talk to Gregor, Father Tibor is brought to court to answer the charge of capital murder.  After once again refusing to be represented by any counsel, the priest is asked by a rather annoyed judge to enter his plea. 

“If it please the court,” Father Tibor says, “I plead nolo contendere.”

Fighting Chance is the twenty-ninth novel featuring Gregor Demarkian.  As with any long-running series, there is a lot of backstory, and readers may find it worthwhile to return, if not to the beginning of the series, at least to one or two earlier books.  That being said, Ms. Haddam’s latest can stand alone because the novel is so well-written, each of its characters so clearly described. 

Something that I always enjoy in books about minorities, whether they be religious, cultural, or ethnic minorities, is learning about their customs and beliefs.  Ms. Haddam, herself an American of Armenian descent, does a wonderful job in giving the reader a sense of this community–the church, the food, the importance of family life–it is all there.

You can read more about Jane Haddam at this web site. 

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site