My thanks to author A. A. Freda for a review copy of this book via BookTasters.
Sam and James: A Test of Will is the third of the series by author A.A. Freda to feature his characters Samantha Powers, the daughter of a minister who is married to James Coppi, a former street-hustler and Vietnam vet, both of whom now head a multi-million-dollar business, with fingers in many pies, and new interests being added from time to time—real estate being the latest and a fashion-line also being explored. The series starts with the two meeting for the first time, and explores their life and pursuits over time. In this one (set in the late 1970s) the two are married and parents to three children, and living the high life—hobnobbing with the wealthy and powerful, working for the government, living on a huge estate (with more properties in other parts of the world), racing horses, and running their businesses. James and Sam are in some ways the conventional protagonists—good looking, wealthy, bright, multitalented (Sam for instance, rides, and is good enough for the Olympics), with a strong bond between them and their families, and trying their best to do right by all. But Freda doesn’t make them flawless; they have their failings and trip up as well, which saves them from feeling far-fetched. (I haven’t read the previous books in the series but that didn’t impede my reading of this book in any way).
In this book, Sam and James, whose company undertakes investigations into white-collar crimes are approached by a retired judge and his wife, Merrill and Judith Abrams, whose son was shot and killed in what was dubbed by the police as a robbery attempt gone wrong. They don’t believe this from the manner in which the death took place, and the police reveal little. James is reluctant as this is not the kind of investigation he usually undertakes, but agrees because he likes and feels for Judith who is suffering terminal cancer. The investigation proceeds slowly at the start with little information available but soon they find that Mark may have been involved in or known something about a political conspiracy, which goes to the highest levels. While they get hints enough to back off from the investigation, James refuses since he doesn’t want to disappoint Judith. But this means James and Sam have to pay the price. All their deepest secrets are dug up and made public, scandals and raised wherever they can be, and James is made the target of some very serious charges which may result in them not only losing the company but also ending up in prison for a long time. But James isn’t willing to give up and we see him trying to solve the mystery while also trying to ensure that he is cleared in the trial he must face. Alongside, we also follow Sam and James’ life, work and relationships as they try to run their companies, balance work and family, and deal with the problems that come into their life because of their own mistakes and because of the case that together test them to the fullest.
This is a book that immerses readers in the world of wealth, politics, corruption, mystery and drama. Sam and James have made their money by hard work (perhaps hustling as well) and are enjoying it, while at the same time also taking care to ensure that those that worked with them to get there have their fair share. With their wealth and social status come both navigating the world of the rich and the powerful which they seem to do well, and also being under constant scrutiny (where they may trip up every so often). They are generally good people, but have to use both their wits and power to keep themselves safe, and the author has presented them with their failings as well. The book gives us a good sense of what their lives are like having to deal with multiple work commitments and interests while also balancing family and ensuring that they have time for each other as well.
I enjoyed the plot of the book very much, particularly the mystery and more so its consequences. The investigation into the murder itself plays out a bit slowly at the start, but it is soon clear that there is a conspiracy involved, and the consequences start manifesting as well—first as simple hints, and then more seriously, in terms of secrets being exposed, dirt being flung, and ultimately James being accused and charged in a matter that linked to his Vietnam days. Once this aspect started to unfold, I got quite absorbed in the story. The trial against James proceeds and we get the full flavour of a courtroom drama with not only some enjoyable cross-examination sequences but also jury specialists working behind the scenes. The excitement of the trial and uncertainty of the outcome were done well (may be a few setbacks would have added some tension). I also found the few insights we get into Vietnam at the time of the war interesting, in terms of what things would have been like at camp, the dynamics and tensions between the soldiers and such and the author’s own experience in Vietnam lends it a sense of authenticity. Alongside, the murder investigation proceeds but there are impediments and one reads on to see how the matter will be resolved.
The book is written in present-tense and is fairly heavy on dialogue. While present-tense formats are not my favourite, I was ok reading this but as far as the dialogue was concerned, in some places it felt a bit jerky and stilted. Also, I felt the story could have done as well without the explicit scenes that were woven in.
But with an enjoyable plot, and the mystery and trial elements, the book did keep me engaged.