Georgie Allen, “Cape Town’s worst-dressed lawyer” and owner of what might be Cape Town’s worst car, can’t afford to add a pro bono case to his long list of troubles. But among those troubles is the fact that his love life has been reduced to giving Love24.com another shot, so when the gorgeous Rachel asks him to help her sister Nina, Georgie doesn’t even bother to discuss his fee. Nina was raped by a cop in a police cell in Barryville, “one of those tiny South African towns that’s stuck in a time warp and is dripping with small-town prejudice and incipient racist values” (6). As expected, the police didn’t bother opening an investigation when Nina laid a charge, so without Georgie’s help, the rapist will get away without so much as a rap on the knuckles.
Georgie leaves immediately for Barryville, stopping only to pick up his friend Advocate Patrick McLennan (aka “the Poison Dwarf”). Patrick brings along a cute but filthy mongrel that’s currently the key witness in a burglary and who Georgie aptly names Exhibit A. The dog promptly makes a bed out of Georgie’s jacket and begins the first of many ball-licking sessions.
If I had to pick just one reason that I’m glad I read this book, it would be learning the word “scrolfing” – Sarah Lotz’s term for the noise Exhbit A makes when he’s “been attacking [his] bollocks… with a dedication that would have been admirable, had it been doing anything else.” (1) Scrolfing is a “combination of grunts and the same liquid smacking noises my granddad used to make whenever he ate a chop without his dentures in” (1). It’s a very useful and oddly endearing term, specifically because I also have a loveable mongrel who makes the exact same disgusting noise despite the fact that she doesn’t have any bollocks to attack.
As it stands though, “scrolfing” is hardly the only thing that makes Exhibit A a good read. It also has amazing characters, a good plot, and it’s incredibly funny. Most of the humour comes from Georgie’s narration – a mixture of witty observations, mild self-deprecation and sarcasm. Just as funny is Patrick, a diminutive, junk-food scoffing Scottish lawyer who makes up for his small stature by being “total and utter bastard” (2) whether in the court-room, passing the bill in a restaurant, or arguing with his long-suffering wife with whom he has somehow conceived five children despite almost never seeing her because he’s always working. Whatever the weather Patrick wears a 3-piece wool suit, he has a strange talent for never spilling anything, even when eating Frosties with milk in Georgie’s lurching car, and he can be fantastically tactless.
Patrick asks Georgie to look after Exhibit A and Georgie grudgingly agrees, thereby turning his terrible car into a terribly smelly car and getting his awful clothes covered in a layer of white fur. The little dog doesn’t play much of a role in the main plot, but he’s a constant presence in the story and becomes an integral part of Georgie’s life and character; there’s a reason why his name is also the title of this book.
Georgie, Patrick and Exhibit A give heart and comic relief to a novel that might otherwise be painful to read. Unlike most crime or legal dramas, Exhibit A doesn’t deal with criminal masterminds or glamorous court cases. Instead its subject matter is something disturbingly common in South Africa – rape and police corruption. The perpetrator isn’t especially smart – he’s just a small-minded bastard who took advantage of his power to force himself on an easy target who probably wouldn’t stand up for her rights and couldn’t afford to seek justice.
On the downside (depending on how you see it), this means that Exhibit A lacks the thrills you might expect from John Grisham or similar. With grim dedication to a realistic depiction of crime in South Africa, the triumphs are mostly small and the frustrations many, and there are no heart-stopping moments when a shocking twist or major new clue is uncovered.
However, the kind of crime Exhibit A tackles gives the novel class. Not for a moment do you get the sense that the crimes committed here are somehow intended to be entertaining – an inescapable feeling in a lot of crime fiction where the crimes and criminals are so fascinating that the victims are only so many broken eggs needed to cook up a riveting story.
Exhibit A doesn’t sacrifice Nina that way. Nor does it have to. The story is compelling without being sensational, the humour is fresh and sharp, and the characters are so memorable you could feel that you’ve met them personally.
Reading over this review, it almost seems like I’ve written about two different books – a comedy about a pair of oddball lawyers and a scruffy mongrel on the one hand, and on the other a serious legal drama about two noble lawyers fighting for the rights of a woman who’s been abused by a corrupt police system. But somehow Sarah Lotz has sewn it all together without any of the elements ever clashing. Highly recommended.