Twenty: A Jack Swyteck Novel
“Twenty is an excellent legal thriller by an experienced hand at storytelling . . .”
Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck is working at his office when he receives a shocking emergency message. His wife, undercover FBI officer Andie Henning, and his young daughter Righley have been caught in the middle of an active school shooting.
As someone stalks the corridors of Riverside Day School with a handgun and pockets filled with extended magazines, Andie disobeys the long-standing active shooter response protocol of “Run, Hide, Fight” and rushes to a position outside the door of her daughter’s kindergarten classroom, armed only with a fire extinguisher and a fierce determination to protect her child.
It’s the 295th mass shooting of the year and it claims 14 victims after 130 rounds have been fired by the attacker in less than five minutes. In the aftermath, with the alleged shooter in custody, Andie is hit with a lawsuit for having endangered students’ lives by her actions to protect Righley, who is expelled from the school.
Meanwhile, Jack is maneuvered into representing Xavier Khoury, a young Riverside student who has confessed to the shooting. Facing virulent anti-Muslim sentiment in the community and his client’s steadfast refusal to speak, Jack must undertake the impossible task of bargaining for a life sentence without the death penalty while becoming increasingly doubtful that Xavier is the actual shooter.
Twenty is James Grippando’s 29th novel and his 17th Jack Swyteck legal thriller, and boy, it’s a humdinger.
In taking on one of the most emotion-filled and polarizing social issues of modern times—school shootings, their causes, and possible means of prevention—Grippando places himself directly in the middle of the maelstrom.
However, he does a very good job of touching on the various issues, including radicalization of young people, access to firearms and extended magazines, the trauma suffered by children in the aftermath, and backlash by angry and grieving parents, without losing his head.
As readers we must recognize that his job is not to write a polemic or a nonfiction study of a vitally important social and political issue. He’s a novelist, and his job is to tell a story.
As a storyteller, then, how well did he do?
Jack Swyteck and Andie Henning are solid, well-crafted main characters familiar to readers of the series, but Grippando does a fine job of sprinkling in just enough information from their back stories to give new readers a good sense of who they are and where they come from.
Jack’s antecedents as the son of former Florida governor Harry Swyteck, for example, and his background handling capital cases as a young lawyer with the Freedom Institute, are blended into the narrative seamlessly so that they don’t slow down the pace or drag us off in the wrong direction.
His secondary characters, specifically Theo Knight, are also well drawn. A former 16-year-old convict whom Jack discovered on death row, Theo was proven by Jack to be innocent of his charges. He now runs a hip café and serves as Jack’s unofficial investigator. While there are similar characters in other series by lesser thriller writers whose names won’t be invoked at this time, you’ll find that Theo is a reasonably strong and engaging character.
The real star of the show, however, is Grippando’s storytelling narrator. The plot crackles and hums, maintaining a strong narrative focus, and we move through the various twists and turns of the plot with a deftness that’s commendable. Grippando also maintains a solid level of suspense with respect to Xavier’s guilt or innocence, the involvement of his family, and the threats to Andie’s career.
Another interesting element of suspense relates to the title of the novel. To what does Twenty refer? It’s another mystery Grippando handles cleverly. It doesn’t relate to the number of victims, as the dust jacket incorrectly maintains, but something different. Something sinister. Something connected to 9/11.
Twenty is an excellent legal thriller by an experienced hand at storytelling, and it’s definitely worth your time and money. It’s still only January, but it looks as though James Grippando may have offered us one of the best thrillers of 2021.