Say Nothing

By Brad Parks
Dutton Publishing, ISBN: 978-1101985601
Paperback 464 pages. ©2017

When federal judge Scott Sampson receives a text from his wife saying she will pick up their kids after school, he is mildly annoyed. It was his turn, not hers. He and the twins had plans, and now they’ll have to be postponed. Besides, Judge Sampson doesn’t like upsetting the family routine. But his wife’s return home—alone—is followed by another text, the beginning of a parent’s worst nightmare. Their 6-year-olds have been kidnapped. If the Sampsons want to see them alive again, they will say nothing to anyone, and follow all instructions to the letter.

The kidnappers know Judge Sampson’s every move, down to how he parts his hair. Their first demand is small, a verdict in a drug hearing. But the judge soon learns their real goal is a specific ruling in a case the whole world is watching, one on which billions of dollars and millions of lives are riding. The longer the case drags out, the more his colleagues and staff begin to question his behavior until the threat of impeachment looms large. Judge Sampson can’t let that happen. He must find a way to stay on the bench, or his family will be torn apart.

I’ve read previous novels by Brad Parks and loved them. This one is a step above his others. Say Nothing weaves family dynamics and courtroom drama into a complicated tapestry with heavy bands of ethical and moral issues I hope most of us never have to face. I empathized with Judge Sampson’s plight and rooted for him right from the start. Even though I have no children of my own, I understood his emotional turmoil and forgave him when he behaved in questionable ways or spoke harshly to trusted friends and family.

All of Parks’s characters are clearly defined, as are their relationships to one another. Despite the initial likable introductions, it isn’t long before almost everyone begins to look suspicious. Seen from the first-person POV of the judge, it’s easy to understand why, as well as to feel his inner conflict; no one wants to suspect those people closest to them. Even though all Parks’s cards are laid on the table early on, I still had no idea who was behind the crime until near the end. Just when I thought I’d figured it out, the story twisted out of my grasp and barreled forward toward a nail-biting climax I did not see coming.

One especially intriguing layer of the novel is the irony of Sampson’s position as an almost unquestioned lawmaker, which of course furthers his dilemma when the kidnappers begin making demands that compromise not only the law but his own personal ethics. I don’t think this is a new concept for a story, but I do believe Say Nothing has outshone many of the others. Parks does a brilliant job of putting us in Sampson’s head, letting us ride out his angst and his fear as the foundations beneath his very ordered life begin to crumble. Given the circumstances, I don’t know any parent who would make different choices.

Since I work for an attorney in Norfolk, it was interesting for me to see the narrative from a judge’s POV. The Courthouse Parks describes, as well as several of the locations, the relationships with the court clerks, and some of the legal terminology, are somewhat familiar to me and added an unexpected depth to my vicarious experience when reading. I can see that the author did his research; I’ve heard my own employer speak of dealings with judges, and of courtroom scenarios, and Parks’s scenes fit what I already knew of such settings. Good job!

Only two small things slowed me down when reading this novel. First, the U.S. legal system is intricate and somewhat (okay, massively) convoluted, especially at the federal level. It took a good deal of description to set up the whole plot, including big chunks of text that felt almost like info-dumps. I’m not sure how he could have done it any better, though. The information was required, and couldn’t really be parsed out in smaller packets if the reader was to understand the scenes, as well as the danger of the sword hanging over Sampson’s head. I understand why it was there, and agree it was necessary, but it slowed me down in the early chapters of the book. Secondly, at least in part because of the nature of the case that is at the core of the novel’s plot, there are a bazillion named characters. I found it difficult to keep track of who was who, and had to go back more than once to track down a character’s connections or figure out what their role was in the larger picture.

That said, once I got a handle on the set-up, I had serious trouble putting this book down. Say Nothing is a thrilling jewel in Brad Parks’ crown. You won’t want to miss it.