One of the things I find most interesting in urban fantasy is when real-world problems intersect with fantasy problems in unexpected ways — the legal system being one of them. Thinking back to the early ANITA BLAKE novels, they dealt regularly with the weird legal issues that crop up when supernaturals are involved. Phillipa Bornikova continues in that tradition with This Case is Gonna Kill Me, featuring Linnet Ellery, a freshly minted lawyer who’s just been hired at a firm run by vampires.
The intersection between the legal and the supernatural, here, is a question of inheritance. Linnet’s new case pits a dead man’s estranged widow and children against the man he transformed into a werewolf; which has the greater claim to being his “progeny” (and thus the greater claim to his huge estate)? When one of Linnet’s fellow attorneys is murdered, Linnet realizes that someone involved is willing to kill for that inheritance. Then her wits and ethics are tested when she discovers a secret that puts the interests of her firm at odds with the real truth of the situation. We also see Linnet deal with several side cases that also illuminate facets of her world and her character.
Linnet is a well-rounded, fully-developed character. She doesn’t fit into the impossibly-tough trope; she’s an ordinary woman, scared like any of us would be in her shoes, who rises to the occasion. She comes from a family that enjoys great privilege but is dysfunctional beneath the surface. She’s sometimes annoying, especially in her obsession with everybody’s weight. She has passions and interests outside of paranormal lawyering. In short, she feels “real,” and thus is easy to empathize with.
Bornikova’s action scenes are fantastic. They’re visceral, they’re scary as hell, and the stakes are always clear — when someone dies, we feel it, and it hurts.
There are two sexual/romantic threads in the plot. One of them is a rather creepy situation, and it reads as creepy, which is a credit to Bornikova’s writing. The other has a lot of potential for development in future books, though in this one it progresses to the L-word a little too soon and could have used some more buildup before getting there.
Another strand of the plot is Linnet’s battle against the glass ceiling. Vampires, in this world, never bite women and never turn them into vampires. And seeing as only vampires advance to the highest positions in the firm, the upward mobility of the female lawyers is severely limited. Linnet’s salvos against the firm’s “Mad Men” atmosphere are fun to watch.
In a few places, the story slows down for scenes that don’t have much bearing on the plot. The horseback riding, for example, while it helps develop Linnet as a character, gets more page space than it needs. Another scene that stood out to me was one where Linnet meets a wide-eyed tourist couple, gives them directions, and assures them that the city is safe. I felt a sense of foreboding while reading this scene and pretty much expected that the wife would be mistaken for Linnet somehow and the couple murdered. This doesn’t happen. It’s not that I’m rooting for characters to die horrible deaths per se; it’s more that this scene could have developed both the plot and the setting (in terms of showing how rural dwellers view the supernaturals in the cities) and instead only develops the setting.
But these are minor speed bumps in a novel that had me carrying it around all day because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. If you like both legal thrillers and urban fantasy, you won’t want to pass this one up. Bornikova spins a suspenseful story with a relatable voice, plenty of action, and a fairly realistic look at what our world might be like if supernatural beings openly existed in it. I look forward to a sequel.