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Monday, August 30, 2010

'John Lloyd Branson' Mystery Series by D.R. Meredith

The John Lloyd Branson series, about an eccentric Texan attorney, was written by DR Meredith in 1988 and concluded with five books in 1993. This series was recommended to me by some crime-fiction aficionados on the Amazon discussion boards. Apparently the ‘John Lloyd Branson’ series is little-known, but hailed by the niche group of readers who live for all things crime-fiction. And I've got to say... I was impressed.

Each book starts with a crime, and the police officer who is on call to report it. In each instance that officer is Sergeant Larry Jenner of the Amarillo traffic police. Jenner is in his early thirties and happy to coast along as a traffic cop. But Ed Schroder, detective for the Special Crimes Unit, envisions great things for Sergeant Jenner... and in the first book Schroder takes the young cop under his wing (whether Jenner likes it or not.)

Meanwhile, in Canadian, twenty-four year old law student Lydia Fairchild is meeting John Lloyd Branson for the first time. Lydia has been assigned to understudy with the brilliant attorney on recommendation of her University Dean, but John Lloyd is not what Lydia expected. For one thing, John Lloyd is a southern gentlemen bordering on chauvinistic. He dresses like a riverboat gambler and his office is harks back to the Victorian era (though he’s 38 years-old). John Lloyd pushes all of Lydia’s buttons, and within a few minutes of meeting him she finds herself threatening to commit bodily harm on his person and cursing like a sailor... but John Lloyd seems to think theirs is a perfect partnership.

The mystery in each book varies greatly but with two consistencies; the first is that the murder is always the precipitating circumstance to bring all the characters together. The other constant is that each murder occurs in the Texas Panhandle; Schroder and Branson’s jurisdiction. Branson and Schroder investigate everything from prostitutes being killed by a Ripper serial killer, to a nasty divorce settlement that may have ended in poisoning. Branson investigates for his defence of the accused, while Schroder works to build the DA’s case.

Each book is a murder mystery, character exploration and family drama all rolled into one.
Branson and Schroder are the heavy-weights in their respective fields, and between them they leave no stone unturned. Character history is unravelled, eye-witnesses coaxed, last hours are played out and alternate suspects are sniffed out. In each book DR Meredith constructs a ‘whodunit’ mystery that is meticulous and brain-teasing. And there’s nothing in the technical crime-solving to hint that these novel’s were written in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Apart from a lack of mobile phones or mention of the Internet, there’s still forensic analysis and computer lab technology to placate crime-fiction connoisseurs.

I loved the narrative perspectives in each novel. Our two primary narrators are Lydia Fairchild and Sergeant Jenner. These two are navigating new partnerships with the ‘old-timers’ in their respective fields. For Jenner, he is partnered with Detective Schroder and unwittingly taken under the older policeman’s wing and taught how to defend the innocent and find the guilty party. Lydia Fairchild is likewise partnered with the best attorney in Texas (though to ask John Lloyd, he would say ‘the world’). Lydia is in her last year of law school and about to enter the courtroom arena, from John Lloyd she is learning about how to question witnesses, keep the police at a distance and uncover the truth away from prying eyes. I loved the contrast of old/new, up-and-coming versus old dogs. Just as Jenner and Fairchild are trying to figure out how their mentors tick, readers are likewise trying to keep up with these teachers.


But the absolute stand-out star of each novel (and the series overall) is without a doubt John Lloyd Branson. He’s a little bit of every witty curmudgeon, snobby intelligentsia and antihero hero that we love. I would liken him to Gregory House, Alan Shore and Sherlock Holmes... but with his own distinct style. He wears three-piece suits, boleros and Stetsons. He is a Southern gentleman through and through, but with a cut-throat sensibility. He doesn’t use contractions, and he prides himself on his manners. He is brilliant. And the best thing about John Lloyd Branson is that he is entirely believable. He opens his mouth and can cut a man down at twenty paces. He is *that* intellectually intimidating and sure of himself. But John Lloyd is only a man in his early thirties, and that comes across. John Lloyd has so much passion and fire, especially for the law and his role as an attorney, and when he talks about his responsibilities you know this is a man for whom the law is life, and his appreciation is infectious...
“You make it sound like a game, John Lloyd,” Lydia protested.
His hands tightened on the steering wheel and she suddenly noticed how strong his hands looked. He could wield a sword or a lance. And be totally merciless.
“What are games but life reduced to symbolic rituals? Trials are a symbolic re-enactment of the ancient practice of settling disputes by armed combat. Attorneys are champions chosen by each side to represent them on the field. We use statutes and case law rather than crude weapons, but we must use them just as skilfully. But my skill is useless if I cannot counter the thrust of my opponent’s sword because my limbs are bound and I lack freedom of movement.”

- ‘Murder by Impulse’ John Lloyd Branson #1
John Lloyd’s believable brilliance is not just in how other characters react to him either. It’s not a case of Schroder *saying* John Lloyd is clever and witty. It’s more a case of DR Meredith writing brilliantly acerbic dialogue for John Lloyd and perfecting his Southerly mannerisms. Still, it is hilarious to read character’s reactions to John Lloyd, and I think Schroder’s summary of his attorney reputation says it best;
“... you can figure we’ve caught the client with a smoking gun in his hand with his fingerprints on it, forty eyewitnesses, and video tapes taken by a passing TV cameraman. Not that it does us any good. John Lloyd Brandon will either prove the victim was stabbed, not shot, that the eyewitnesses were all legally blind, or that the video tape had been tampered with...”

- ‘Murder by Impulse’ John Lloyd Branson #1
Schroder and Branson have a wonderful dynamic. Schroder is perhaps the most mysterious character in the series, even more so than John Lloyd Branson. But we learn the most about Schroder’s character through his interactions with Branson. These two cowboys have been competing at the same rodeo for a few years now, and it shows. Every meeting between them feels like a cock fight and there’s lots of history, plenty of grudge but all tempered with a healthy dose of respect. Neither will admit it in front of the other, but spoken to Jenner and Fairchild we learn that Branson and Schroder acknowledge each other as being the best. These two push each other, compete with one another and have ended up being better for the competition.

Each novel is a murder-mystery of Machiavellian proportions, beautifully executed by DR Meredith’s talented pen. Whether John Lloyd Branson is posing as a sword-wielding pimp to uncover a serial murderer or Schroder is trying to get to the bottom of a deadly dinosaur... the mystery in each novel is superb. But what I responded to most of all (and much to my surprise) was the romance woven throughout...

From the get-go there’s definite heat and spark between Lydia and John Lloyd. Theirs is a slow-burn romance, since John Lloyd seems wholly aware of Lydia’s developing crush on him and hell-bent on preventing it. John Lloyd has secrets and a romantic past that impinge on his feelings for Lydia, which throughout five novels he is desperate to ignore. But John Lloyd can’t deny his feelings for long, or discreetly. Other characters remark on John Lloyd and Lydia’s dynamic and clear affection. Lydia herself is very honest in her feelings, and ruthless in her seduction. And the romance is made even greater by the pair’s push-and-pull dynamic. They trade verbal barbs one minute, and in the next John Lloyd is crushing Lydia to his side. It’s all very rollercoaster, and heart-palpitating.
“It is very difficult to kiss you when you are talking. I feel as if I am aiming for a moving target.”
“What?”
“It is your intention to kiss me, is it not? Since that activity is most rewarding when both parties participate, I intend to kiss you, also. Our decision is unwise, unprofessional, dangerously reckless, and one we shall undoubetedly both regret, but it is necessary.”
“Why?” she asked. If this were a dream, it beat the hell out of sea and sand and buccaneers.
“Thanksgiving,” he whispered. “That you are alive.”

- ‘Murder by Masquerade’ John Lloyd Branson #3
This series is superb. It is a crime-fiction delicacy to be savoured for its melt in your mouth brilliance. Everything comes together perfectly; the whodunit, the heroes and villains and an intimidating but brilliant protagonist to cut your teeth on. DR Meredith’s John Lloyd Branson series will go down as one of my all-time favourites.

5/5


2 comments:

  1. this sounds awesome!! might give it a try when im craving something different =)

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  2. I LOVED this series, and bought each one as soon as they were available in the 90's. Unfortunately, we lost the books and all others when our house burned to the ground. I just remembered these tonight and found your post. Well written, by the way. I think I'll have to find whatever copies I can and read them again.

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