With Prejudice is a complex legal thriller about a murder trial: Gabriel Soto is accused of murdering Melina Mora. Her hair is found in his home, traces of bleach stain his floors, and a witness says she saw them arguing at a bar the evening Melina was killed. Through the trial, various bits of evidence collide with the prejudices of the people involved, and Peguero takes us into the minds and hearts of witnesses, jury members, even the judge and lawyers. Deliberately, Gabriel’s mind remains obscured until the very end, leaving us to deliberate along with the jury whether or not Gabriel is indeed guilty of this crime.
The courtroom drama was fascinating. I loved seeing Sandy and Jordan butt heads, and I especially love Sandy’s strategic choice of the soft-spoken, rumpled Nate as her second chair. I would totally read a sequel starring Nate on a case. Peguero’s background as a prosecutor is evident, with the various legal details dropped in, and the way the reasoning behind the judge’s decisions are outlined.
However, i found the story much weaker outside the courtroom. The detours into the juries’ stories was confusing and often felt unnecessary. Peguero sometimes slips into a somewhat florid narration in these scenes, and with so many side characters who matter only for a chapter or two, it takes a while to figure out what’s going on and how it relates to the story. Worse, Peguero begins these chapters with the side character’s real name, and their lives outside the trial, only revealing them to be juror number one or whatnot after the detour into their past is over, which often leaves me wondering for most of the chapter why on earth I should care about this random person. These bits of their past are interesting insofar as they show their biases, but a late reveal in the novel makes so much of this part of it moot for the purposes of the main plot. Peguero also switches between the juror’s name and their number throughout the chapters, which just adds to the confusion.
The side stories about the lawyers and the judges are also underdeveloped. Sandy’s relationship with a reporter is interesting, but then it’s mostly shunted aside for the trial. Jordan’s depiction as a vain pretty-boy with a gorgeous wife holds promise, but we never (or maybe only briefly?) meet this wife or his family. And the second chairs — Nate, whom I found most fascinating as the quiet man who’s often underestimated, and Jordan’s second chair, a woman fresh out of law school who makes an intriguingly rookie mistake while examining a witness– aren’t even given back stories at all. The detective, Sterling, probably gets the most nuanced back story, if only because his biases are a bit harder to tease out, and when revealed, turn out to have complex reasons behind them. But in the mass of mini-glimpses into many characters’ lives, Sterling’s back story feels frustratingly underdeveloped.
Still, the courtroom drama kept me hooked, and I was ready to call this a fun, if a bit scattered at times, book. But I absolutely hated the ending, and the major reveal at around the 75% mark that led up to it. I’ll allow that the ending is (unfortunately) realistic, witnesses and evidence being as they are. I’ll also allow that Peguero set up the twist solidly — looking back, there’s no reason why things couldn’t have unfolded in that way, and Peguero used quite a few clever techniques to keep it under wraps. But as someone who was super invested in the trial and its outcome, I hated it. I didn’t get that thrill of “OMG I didn’t see that coming!” Rather, I felt cheated, and wish that things had turned out differently.
Thanks to HBG Canada for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.