The Murder Rule
reviewed by Carolyn Scott
No one is innocent in this story.
Hannah Rokeby is a third-year law student at the University of Maine. She lives with her single mother Laura, an alcoholic who suffered a traumatic event before Hannah was born and now drinks to numb the pain.
When Hannah was fourteen, she found her mother’s diaries and read about the man who was her father and the man who abused her mother. That man, Michael Dandridge has served eleven years in prison on death row for the rape and murder of a young mother in Virginia. However, she recently discovered that the Innocence Project in Virginia is working to overturn his conviction.
Through various ways and means Hannah manages to inveigle herself onto the team of law student volunteers at the University of Virginia who work on the Innocence Project under the leadership of Prof Robert Parekh. Only applications that fit three criteria are considered by the group. Firstly, the inmate must have been convicted of a crime in Virginia, secondly the conviction must be final with no ongoing appeals and thirdly the inmate must be claiming factual innocence of the crime. The students are required to assess the applications, including any new evidence and make a recommendation on the likelihood of being able to prove innocence. The budget is limited so the students are expected to investigate facts and follow up new evidence themselves.
However, Hannah has clearly not joined the team for altruistic reasons and is only really interested in a single case, that of Michael Dandridge. She discovers that Michael is claiming that a false ‘confession’ was beaten out of him by the arresting Sherriff and that evidence pointing to an alternative suspect was withheld from the trial. If she is to find a way to prevent the overturn of his conviction, she must somehow first become part of the select group focusing on his case and find some way to undermine the investigation.
This is an engaging and gripping tale of betrayal and corruption. Dervla McTiernan’s experience as a lawyer shows in the intriguing legal details and investigative leads that the students follow. Entries from Laura’s diary are interspersed with the narrative so that we learn what lead to Hannah’s desire that Michael should never be released. Hannah may not be a likeable character with her ability to lie and manipulate everyone, but she is certainly resourceful and courageous, and it would be difficult to not to be on her side by the end of the novel.
The novel’s pace is steady at first, picking up speed as the new trial draws closer and it becomes evident that other parties also have vested interests in the outcome of the trial, finally exploding into a tension packed thriller laced with danger for Hannah and others involved in the trial. While the final courtroom scenes might be stretching plausibility, they certainly made for a compelling and very satisfying ending.
With thanks to William Morrow via Netgalley for a copy to read.