The cover of A Criminal Appeal, by D.R. Schanker, says "The truth doesn't always set you free. Sometimes it takes a damn good lawyer." Actually, this story puts the lie to that statement, showing instead that achieving justice sometimes has nothing to do with the law, but rather comes down to simple faith, tenacity, and hard-headedness. Also, being big-boned seems to genetically predispose Schanker's protagonist, Nora Lumsey, for the role of the crusader.
Nora is a newly-minted lawyer working as a clerk for an appeals court judge in Indiana who has before him an appeal dealing with a robbery and shooting of an elderly white woman allegedly committed by a 10-year-old, deaf Black boy named Dexter. Nora is assigned Dexter's appeal and the judge instructs her to write an opinion affirming the conviction. Under ordinary circumstances, Nora would feel only an ordinary level of sympathy and pity for the boy whose life will be wasted serving a 55-year sentence for murder. But it turns out that Dexter's grandfather, Carl, who submitted Dexter's appeal, lives two houses away from Nora. And, as Nora reminds us throughout the story, being big-boned has endowed her with an inordinate amount of stubborn righteousness, and she wants to try to help Dexter.
Curious about the circumstances of the case, and heedless of the conflict inherent in a judge's clerk independently investigating the case, not to mention the blatant violation of judicial rules and ethics, Nora seeks out Carl's acquaintance. Almost instantly, she finds herself being drawn into the case, being invited by Carl to attend church with him, to go to the reform school to meet Dexter, and to meet Dexter's former teacher, named Owedia. Owedia's persistent efforts to involve Nora in trying to free Dexter are met with feeble resistance (Nora tells her she can't get too involved because "I work for the State.") and eventually Nora finds herself enmeshed in the search for the truth of who committed the murder. She fails to convince the judge to overturn the conviction, and despite the danger to her career, she continues to pursue the case, following up leads that take her into seedy neighborhoods and into a world of gang violence she has never experienced firsthand. When the situation turns dangerous, possibly deadly, Nora's big-boned bravado and Owedia's deeply religious faith carry them through.
The major themes in the story are the nature of racial prejudice, the fallibility of the judicial system, and the importance of community and individuals helping others. In the face of corrupt and ambitious politicians, a porous judicial system that allows innocent people to slip through the cracks, and a religious establishment incestuously involved with political machines, it is the individuals willing to put their faith and convictions on the line -- those who will not walk away or hide behind pragmatism -- who set the best example in this story and who accomplished true justice. The story is engaging and uplifting even when the plot takes depressing turns. As a lawyer, Schenker understands his subject matter very well and is able to translate the legal jargon effectively for the lay person. Schenker writes an engaging story which was rewarded with a nomination in 1999 for the prestigious Edgar Award.