The new ebook
edition of Where Lawyers Fear To Tread is available in Amazon's Kindle
Store, the iTunes store, and Barnes & Noble's Nook Store.
Where Lawyers Fear to Tread is the debut crime novel featuring
lawyer Willa Jansson, described by the New
York Times as, "One of the most articulate and surely the wittiest of
women sleuths at large in the genre."
All Willa has to do is finish her last year of law school,
and she'll get the job of her idealistic dreams. The lawyer who routinely keeps
her social activist parents out of jail—or at least joins them on their
courthouse soapbox—asks only that she graduate with honors and on law
review. So far, so good. Willa is near the top of her class at Malhousie Law,
in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, and she's the law review's senior articles
Everything changes the morning the new issue comes out.
Furious professors, stressed out students, and even local politicians troop
through the basement office to confront Susan Green, the editor-in-chief. But
Willa has no clue,
while she's dying of boredom in her federal income tax class, that Susan Green
is slumped over a manuscript, dying of a blow to the head. And when another editor insists it's his right to take over Green's job,
he's killed in exactly the same way. Willa's not exactly thrilled to be third
in line, considering someone may be trying to climb the masthead one dead body
at a time.
Find out why the Houston Chronicle wrote that, "Willa's
cases and escapades always top the fun-to-read list," and Fresh Air's John Leonard said, "I'm
in love with Willa!"
Fear To Tread
By Lia Matera
Copyright 1987 Lia
This ebook may not be
re-sold, reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial
First Bantam Books Edition
First Ballantine Books
The law school and
law firms depicted in this book are imaginary. So are the lawyers, professors,
and law students. Any resemblance they bear to real people and institutions is
This novel is
dedicated, with thanks, to the editors of the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Volume 8, for letting me
boss them around.
Where Lawyers Fear To Tread
Law schools don't have football teams, they have law
reviews. Law reviews may look like large paperbacks, but they are arenas. Legal
scholars maul each other in polite footnotes, students scrimmage and connive
for editorial positions, and the intellectual bloodlust of law professors is appeased,
Law reviews are edited by law students. After three years of
competing for grades, jobs, even vending machine food (it's nothing but Fig
Newtons after four o'clock), law students will do anything—if it means
someone else doesn't get to do it.
"Top ten percent and law review," that's the magic
phrase. If you don't want to work in Puyallup, Washington, or Lawton, Oklahoma,
if you want to work in a big city law firm, if you want a decent salary, if you
want a job in a government agency or a hip organization like the American Civil
Liberties Union, you'd better be in the top ten percent of your class, and
you'd better be on law review. And if you're not at Harvard, Yale, or Stanford
Law, it's best to be editor-in-chief.
I was editor-in-chief of a law review for a while, through no
fault of my own. I replaced an infinitely more qualified woman named Susan
Here's everything I know about Susan Green, former
editor-in-chief of the Malhousie Law Review.
Susan Green was born to Dr. Sidney and Mrs. Greta Green the
year I, Willa Jansson, started grade school. While I played with incense sticks
and chose my mantra at one of the first alternative schools in San Francisco,
Susan Green, super-baby, learned her alphabet from an overqualified nanny. While
I was hating my first job, washing dishes at a vegetarian restaurant, Susan
Green was giving piano recitals and taking ballet lessons. While I organized
high school antiwar rallies and refused to salute the flag, Susan Green began
using her photographic memory on volumes of patriotic verse. When my parents
joined the Peace Corps, Dr. and Mrs. Green began their retirement cruise,
leaving Susan in an elegant boarding school in Washington, D.C. So, when I
hitchhiked there to join thousands of others camped around the White House,
Susan Green and I were in the same city for the first time in our lives.
That didn't happen again for four years, when we both ended
up at Stanford University, me after much impecunious gypsying around the
country (which did not affect my college entrance exam score), and she after
graduating with honors from the toughest of prep schools. Not only did we end
up at the same university at the same time, but our families actually met at
freshman orientation. My father looked faded and ill after two years of
diarrhea, but my mother was still rosy and pear-shaped under twenty pounds of
African jewelry. Susan's parents looked made-for-TV and smelled faintly of
leather from a new Jaguar. We all ended up at the same little outdoor picnic
table for a cafeteria lunch. Two students at the next table were discussing
their rapes, and Mrs. Green went white and whispered to my mother that she
wished they wouldn't. She looked down at where her cleavage would be if, like
the students, she were showing any.
"I've been raped myself," my mother said in her
squeaky, carrying voice. "Twice. And it really is therapeutic to talk
There was a shocked silence. Mrs. Green clutched her fur-trimmed
collar, sidling closer to her pinch-lipped husband.
My mother, characteristically unaware of having given
offense, thus noticed the band of wildlife around Mrs. Green's neck. I knew
what was coming. I'd already gotten the 'greatness of a nation' lecture when I
ordered a cheeseburger.
"You know, Gandhi said that the greatness of a nation
can be judged by the way its animals are—"
"—cooked," I cut in. Mrs. Green and my
mother seemed to agree this was not funny.
Then Mother started to say something else, and Mrs. Green
stood abruptly. She and hers walked away. I love my mother, but we've all been
Susan Green and I had one class together that year, and I
wrote her off as a living résumé, dull but impeccable. She wore a pearl
necklace to class, she used soap that made her cheeks shiny. Her sorority's
motto was "Learn from the successful and inspire the unfortunate."
(Maybe part of initiation was saying that without laughing. And inspiration is easy on the pocketbook.)
Susan had total recall, a photographic memory. She spoke in
edited paragraphs: topic sentence, supporting facts, brief restatement. I'm a
babbler who can't memorize, so I hated her for it.
I had a few classes with her, never did as well on the
exams, never impressed my professors, and got into a lot of trouble over some
articles I wrote for the school paper. (I called Leland Stanford a domestic
pirate, which I learned was not beyond dispute after all.)
Then the fates decreed that Susan Green and I begin law
school together, make law review together, and end up on the editorial board
But here's one thing we didn't do together: the day I argued
with Larry Tchielowicz about the war in Vietnam, somebody smashed Susan's head
in as she bent over a manuscript.
"Look what the Communists did over there. Too bad
radicals didn't keep quiet and let Nixon win the war." There were half a
dozen other editors in the law review office, sleepily filling their cups with
metallic wastewater from the coffee um. They regarded Tchielowicz with weary
incredulity. Exams were less than four weeks away. Only I could be goaded into
fighting the old battles.
"You'd have protested too if the government planned to
kill your ass on foreign soil." Tchielowicz was younger
than me. He'd been in diapers during those years of division, death, and
"No Republicans in foxholes?" Tchielowicz's thin
lips—the only thin part of the muscle-bound, big-headed
man—twitched back a smile. "The army's paying my way through law
school, I'll have you know. Paid my way through college, too. I've already done
basic training, and I owe them six more years, after the bar exam." He
rubbed his smallish, bent nose. "So you see, I've already consented to let
the government do with my ass what it will."
I treated Tchielowicz to my candid opinion of this
Susan Green rapped at the glass of the inner office to try
to shut me up. She'd talked the law school into erecting a plywood and acrylic
enclosure around the half dozen desks in the basement office, separating them
from the sagging Naugahyde couches and encrusted coffee accoutrements. The
partitions created an illusion of privacy, but they stopped several feet short
of the ceiling to allow for a maze of overhead pipes, and they barely muffled
the sound of conversation on the other side.
Since it took sixteen of us to do the proofreading,
disparaging, and kvetching known as the editorial process, and since most of us
did it in the outer office, Susan's inner sanctum was less than silent at the
best of times. But I honored her request by concluding more quietly, and more kindly,
that Tchielowicz was a prostitute for the cryptofascist war machine.
Before Tchielowicz could respond, Jake Whittsen strolled in
and ruffled my hair—I don't know why men treat small blond women like
puppies. "Are you coming to hear Jane Day?" Even Jake's voice was
gorgeous, about an octave lower than most men's, and so quiet it sounded like
pillowtalk no matter what he said.
Jane Day was one of those damned Republican feminists who run every committee in every town. It was spooky how often I ran across her name. She was
currently on the rubber chicken circuit, trying to win her party's nomination
for state attorney general. The law school, which happened to be her alma
mater, was hosting a reception for her that afternoon. The editorial board of
the law review had been invited. The rest of the student body was not deemed
worthy to break bread with our distinguished professors.
I was inclined to go with Jake. It was a chance to sit
beside him and become intoxicated by his cologne (probably selected by his
stunning and sophisticated wife, alas).
But Tchielowicz remarked that he guessed it was more
important for Jane Fonda to build up her pecs than to worry about the
Vietnamese… once they were getting slaughtered by socialists and not capitalists.
I mean really, I couldn't leave the fray. I turned down Jake's invitation.
A few students drifted in, earnestly discussing the relative
merits of squash and racquetball. They drank the dregs of the coffee, then
Reeboked off to a commercial paper class. Professor Haas, a comparative law
professor with a lilting Swedish accent and a shy, charming smile, came in to
get the latest issue of the review. It was hot off the presses and stacked on the
floor near Susan's desk. Professor Miles, who'd been teaching trusts and wills
long before they'd mummified her, stalked in clutching a copy. Through the
plywood partition, I heard her shriek to Susan that we'd failed to list all her
degrees in the editor's note preceding her article on blind trusts.
That was the last thing I ever heard anyone say to Susan
I left to go to my federal income tax class. I didn't
particularly want to go, but I was beginning to suspect Larry Tchielowicz
thought I was cute when I was mad.
And while my tax professor lasciviously discussed his
favorite tax shelters, someone stood behind Susan Green, raised up a weapon,
and brought it down twice on the back of her head.
John Hancock Henderson, a several-times-removed descendant
of the guy with the big loopy signature, hovered over my desk. The look on his
face bespoke a great tightness of the nether parts.
"The masthead shows a clear pattern of ascension,"
he spat, as though we'd been arguing about it. "It goes: editor-in-chief
on top, then next row, executive editor—me—on the left and senior
articles editor—you—on the right."
"Can I be on the left? I'm more at home there."
"What? No. I'm saying we're one row down from
editor-in-chief, which speaks to our level of importance. But the fact that
executive editor is positioned first in the row tells us it's next in—"
"Does all that fit on your résumé?"
Henderson was looking excessively crabby, even for him. He
was of middle height, getting plumper every year, with skin that looked like
pizza at finals time. His face and features were so big Mary West called him
Mr. Potato Head. (It's good to have someone around who's less charitable than
my own secret thoughts.)
"I know what you're thinking," he said. "This
is somehow in bad taste. But this law review has been in existence eighty-eight
years, and we have an obligation to carry on. There's no excuse for getting
behind"—he said the word with sincere horror—"so we've
got to determine who's in charge."
"Nobody needs to be in charge. I'll do final edits for
style and substance, you keep doing the final technical edits, and we'll set
the deadlines between us. The only executive decision left for Susan was
choosing the articles for the summer issue. The other three issues are either
at the printer's or almost ready to go."
What I didn't say was that there would be a mass revolt of
editors if John Henderson started cracking the whip. Susan had spent half her
time mollifying John's underlings to keep them from mutiny. He was a good
technical editor—he could spot a spacing error in a footnote from a
hundred yards—but that was about all you could say for him as a human
Anyway, the conversation seemed ghoulish.
"Go be monomaniacal elsewhere, would you, Henderson? I
have to finish reading this case before my trusts class."
Mary West came in, looking like a refugee from a True Sex article on "Why Leather
Makes Me Hot."
Mary had waist-length black hair and a figure that made her
pale, lantern-jawed face beside the point. She had a habit of lacing her
fingers behind her head to show off a bustline that needed no fanfare. She also
liked to spend money she didn't have—hence the tight leather pants and
high-heeled Italian boots—and to bed first-year students who didn't know
I'll say this for Mary, she didn't mince her words.
"Masturbating over the masthead again, John?"
She'd once told Henderson he looked like an oiled pig when
he blushed. He proved her point, huffing out of the inner office. He shouted
over his shoulder, "I'll take this up with our faculty advisor, thank you."
Mary sauntered over to Susan's desk, which had been emptied
of effects by the police and scrubbed clean by me. (John had delegated the task
to the janitor in a chillingly seigneurial way, so I'd felt obliged to do it
"Christ, who'd want to bash Cotton Panties?"
Clean, white, and practical—that had been Mary's assessment of Susan.
I have very long blond bangs. If I tuck my chin down I can
examine the gray streak that is developing on the right side. I did that.
"You don't suppose John killed Susan so he could be the
Big Footnote?" She smiled her I've-seen-it-all smile. "What's this
shit about him going to the faculty? They're not going to make him e-in-c are
I shook my head. John and I had had many dealings with the
faculty. I'd recognized their pomposity and worked around it. John had met them
with equal pomposity, which they seemed to find disrespectful. If our faculty
had to choose a replacement for Susan, it wouldn't be John.
"Damn him," I said. "If he gets me made
e-in-c, I'll kill him."
Praise For Lia Matera's Willa
Jansson is one of the most articulate and surely the wittiest of women sleuths
at large in the genre." The New York
Times Book Review
will be shaken by Matera's rapier-sharp dissection of personal relationships
and radical ideologies. Matera again demonstrates that she is one of today's
best mystery writers." Publishers
and entertaining... Absorbing... With sharp descriptions and crisp dialogue...
admirably delivers the complex situations and memorable characters of a 'real
novel' while still managing to let the detective story have its day in
court." The Wall Street Journal
distinctive voice, sharp wit, discussion of social and moral issues, insight
into personal ideals and compromises and characters that grab your
emotions." Washington Post
Jansson is an unusually deep and complex character for crime
fiction--tough-minded, sexual, vulnerable, lonely, morally alive… This is
gutsy, grown-up crime-writing from one of the best practitioners around." Newsday
wit, grace with language, irreverence toward the legal system, and wry
dissection of being a child of the Sixties make this a standout." Kirkus Reviews
cases and escapades always top the fun-to-read list... The beauty of Matera's
writing is that the story, fun as it is, doesn't shortcut a shrewd social
commentary." Houston Chronicle
seems to really understand the moral and social issues that were on the deck in
the late '60s and early '70s, and she's not interested in blowing them
off. She's smart enough to realize that many of these issues are still
with us… Good stuff." Austin
with pungent prose, an affecting, funny, realistic heroine/detective and
pressing moral and emotional issues." San
language is witty and sharp; her images by turn humorous and poignant.
The moral dilemmas with which her characters wrestle are real and
wrenching." The Recorder
voice is clear and light, and she knows when to jettison the gags and get on
with the story. As long as Willa is still the star of the show, the
series will stand out in the often homogenous mystery landscape." San Francisco Chronicle
has produced a first-rate mystery, exhibiting her usual hallmarks of excellent
plotting, solid characterizations, and brisk pacing." Booklist
real pleasure is Willa, who alternates between humor and annoyance at her
predicament—and whose love-hate relationship with men strikes a chord
with many female fans." Entertainment
everything a good mystery needs…a complex plot, social commentary, loads of
atmosphere and a cast of unusual characters… The reader wants to hang out
with Jansson and see more of her clear-eyed view of the world." San Jose Mercury News
writers possess Lia Matera's wry humor, especially when it comes to putting
down lawyers." San Jose Mercury News
in love with Willa!" John Leonard, National Public Radio's "Fresh Air"