The Murder Rule
By Dervla McTiernan
William Morrow — May 2022
ISBN: 9780063042209 — Hardcover — 304 pp.
Hannah Rokeby reads an article in the popular press about The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia and the founder behind it, attorney/professor Rob Parekh. A program set in place to check and correct imbalances in the US legal system, The Innocence Project fights to prevent or overturn wrongful convictions and related injustices. But, Hannah is a bit skeptical about Parekh’s motivations, and she is particularly alarmed to see the project’s current poster case: fighting for the release of Michael Dandridge, a man convicted of rape and murder. Parekh and his team seem convinced of Dandridge’s innocence. But Hannah is aware of a relevant past history that no one at the Innocence Project could possibly know. Hannah knows this man is a monster.
As the novel opens, Hannah is working on her first steps of an elaborate plan to earn a coveted spot with the ace team of students working closest to Parekh on the high-profile Dandridge case. She will do anything that is needed to achieve that. And then she will destroy any hope that Dandridge has of seeing freedom.
McTiernan writes this page-turning legal thriller in a way that slowly reveals Hannah’s plans and motivations. A diary kept by her mother serves as the catalyst for Hannah’s radical actions, and the reader sees the contents of these pages in chronological order interspersed with chapters from Hannah’s point-of-view. Written when her mother was around the age Hannah now is, the diary testifies to how her mother’s life became debilitated and turned to alcohol to give Hannah the familial life she now has.
I don’t want to reveal more about the plot to avoid the surprises of a good mystery/thriller, but I can talk a little bit more about the central theme of the novel and why it resonated for me. The Murder Rule is all about story, what we choose to believe as the truth, and what we view with skepticism. Having just sat on a jury in a murder trial myself (even as I read this novel), I can’t think of any considerations more important than these within the law, justice, and punishment. Hannah herself sums up the human tendency to run with assumptions and accept false narratives:
“We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.”
The Murder Rule reveals how true this is, in ways unexpected for all of its characters, both primary and secondary. McTiernan actually plays with this from the very opening of the novel, which is presented as an email exchange between Hannah and Parekh. The text of those emails, with no other context, heavily implies that Parekh is guilty of sexual misconduct, and other offenses linked to that. However, once Hannah and Parekh meet we find additional information that this is actually not the case. We didn’t have the whole story yet to really make the correct judgement.
Hannah’s personality is an aspect that I adored about the novel. Though extreme and misguided in ways that could lead many readers to find her unsympathetic or dislikable, I found traits of her character to show, at heart, a tenacity for justice and loyalty. There is a complexity here of someone doing horrible things, for the right reason – or the utterly wrong reason, that shows the complexities and possible errancy of human decisions. Now, consider that ordinary people make exactly such decisions every single day in court rooms when deciding the fate of other people. This complexity is the heart of the Innocence Project in the novel (and the real one in life.) Still not perfect, it’s an added check to a generally imperfect system.
The title of the novel is another layer of complexity to what otherwise might be read as a simplistic legal thriller. It refers to the Felony Murder Rule, a legal doctrine whose merits Hannah and another character discuss in the novel. How this doctrine relates to the plot of the novel is a little less obvious. Directly, I don’t know as it is. However, in its general sense as a matter of ‘transfer of intent’ it is most certainly relevant. The Murder Rule revolves around the delicate uncertainties of agency and intent in crime, not just murder, but broadly.
For reasons of plot, once the diary text by Hannah’s mother has been fully revealed, chapters stick to Hannah alone, with one glaring exception: a chapter near the close fo the novel written from the point-of-view of a male secondary character who works with Hannah on Parekh’s team for the Dandridge case. The consistency and pattern of the novel could have been aided by finding some way to work around this bit of plot that Hannah is not present for. It’s a minor point, but such architecture and consistency bears some aesthetic import for me at least.
The other negative thing I would have to say about the novel is that it is a sort of missed opportunity to get into the social justice that the Innocence Project and its ilk provide. The characters of the novel don’t really allow exploration of the political or sociological issues relevant to this topic at all. McTiernan could have delved into that more without sacrificing the deeper legal ethics she goes into generally or the entertainment of a well plotted and paced thriller.
Nonetheless, The Murder Rule provides a good amount for a diverse audience to chew on. It’s sure to be enjoyed by readers who are looking for an easy summer thriller to read in leisure, but it’s also a story whose deeper themes invite some optional introspection and consideration.