Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 31 January 2023)
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Australian lawyer and debuting author Joanna Jenkins introduces herself in a big way with her fantastic first novel, the legal thriller How to Kill a Client, which takes the reader on a fascinating journey to the dark side of Australia’s legal profession.
As the in-house lawyer at a powerful international mining company, Gavin Jones oversees millions of dollars’ worth of legal contracts each year, including to the Brisbane office of the Australian legal firm Howard Green. Using them to negotiate lucrative contracts throughout Australia, Jones has become one of Howard Green’s biggest clients and the money he controls ensures that everyone at the law firm treats him like a god.
But while everyone fawns over Jones and his power, no-one actually likes him. A cruel, petty and vindicative man, Jones has messed with the careers and lives of everyone in his orbit, especially women, who he reserves a particular disdain for. His actions ensured the suffering of everyone he has power over, including his wife, his employees, and the female partners at Howard Green, as he seeks to wreck lives, destroy careers and give himself the lifestyle he feels he deserves.
So when Jones dies suddenly and suspiciously, everyone he knew is a potential suspect; thanks to his dodgy dealings and underhanded tactics, they all had a motive to kill him. As the police begin their investigation and the lawyers at Howard Green close ranks, it falls to partner Ruth Dawson, one of the few people without a motive, to protect her firm and its secrets. However, when her investigation reveals proof of who killed Jones and other dark secrets her firm is hiding, will Ruth reveal the truth or will she bury it to protect her firm?
How to Kill a Client is a clever and tricky novel that really showcases Jenkins’s skill as a new writer. Blending a fantastic and compelling crime fiction narrative with intense looks at the lifestyle of members of a successful law firm, How to Kill a Client was a gripping and interesting read that is really worth checking out.
I loved the cool story contained within this book which came across as part legal thriller, part personal drama surrounding high-level professionals, and part intriguing murder mystery. The story dives into the chaotic world surrounding the legal firm of Howard Green and its clients and effectively introduces all the key players in this drama, who have their own views on the troubles to come. Each primary characters is connected to the eventual victim, Gavin Jones. Jenkins spends the first half of the book showcasing Jones’s terrible nature and the various ways they are messing with everyone. Cleverly utilising multiple character perspectives, you are soon drawn into the various main characters’ lives and soon see all the various reasons why each of them may have wanted to kill Jones, as well as some of the suspicious steps some of them took. Jenkins perfectly sets up everything in the first part of How to Kill a Client, and by the time you reach the halfway point, you are firmly enthralled by the narrative and want to see how the rest of the book unfolds.
When the eventual death happens (a real high point) the reader is left wondering whether it was an accident, a mistake, or a deliberate action, with the evidence pointing towards a murder. However, due to the sheer range of suspects and motives, the story produces a twisty and fun range of plotlines that you need to navigate to get to the final conclusion. Jenkins really produces an emotional and captivating second half as you try to find out who killed Jones and why. There are some brilliant revelations unfurled here, and I loved how some cunningly hidden clues in the first half of the book were utilised in the final mystery. I was very impressed with the final reveals around how the killing was committed and why it happened, and you will come away from this story very satisfied, especially as Jenkins builds in some excellent character moments and ensures that all the remaining characters get a fitting end to their arcs. I found myself getting really caught up in Jenkins’ powerful and amazing story and I honestly powered through the last half of the book very quickly to see how everything ended.
Part of the reason why How to Kill a Client is such an effective read is that Jenkins introduces an excellent cast of intriguing and complex characters who are thrust into a variety of compelling situations throughout the course of the narrative. Each of the main cast, who Jenkins effectively builds up and utilises in the plot, are quite damaged, desperate or concerned in their own unique way, while many of the supporting characters are notably selfish or manipulative for their own ends. Characters like Ruth Dawson and Viv Harrison give some compelling and honest insights into how women are treated in this influential professional setting, while Anne Jones shows the harsh reality of a women trapped in an abusive relationship. At the same time, there is a great collection of supporting lawyer characters who Jenkins uses to show off the range of people and personalities one is likely to experience in Australia’s legal services.
However, out of all the characters in this book, the one I must highlight the most is probably the murder victim, Gavin Jones, mainly because he is such a despicable figure. Jenkins really goes out of her way to make Jones into one of the most unlikable and petty characters you are ever likely to find in fiction and boy does she succeed, perfectly capturing an insecure and manipulative narcissist who enjoys controlling people. Not only does he go out of the way to try and ruin the careers of several characters just because they are women, but he also demands attention from the male characters to feed is ego, while also abusing and controlling his wife to make him feel good. In a very short amount of time Jenkins builds Jones up into such an unlikable character that the reader finds themselves trying to reach into the book and kill him before the murderer does. This naturally adds quite a lot to the mystery of the book, as his malicious professional actions, deceits, violence and puppy killing (seriously, that one really angered me), ensures that everyone he came in contact with had a reason to murder him. The huge suspect pool around this unlikable character allows Jenkins to craft an impressive murder mystery and you’ll really get drawn into finding who finally snapped and killed this infuriating character. This villainous figure, and other great characters, all added so much to the plot of How to Kill a Client and really got invested in their stories very quickly.
One of the other features of How to Kill a Client that I particularly enjoyed was the author’s detailed and intriguing examination of an Australian law firm. Clearly utilising all her past experiences as a lawyer, Jenkins perfectly showcases how a firm would work and act in a variety of scenarios, and you really get the senses of the day-to-day chaos the individuals working there would experience, which adds a lot of authenticity to the story. Jenkins also dives into the backroom drama and politics that surround such entities, as the various lawyers cut deals and fight for control over various projects or clients. There is a particularly cynical edge to the book’s portrayal of legal firms in this novel, and Jenkins shows it to be a dark and unfulfilling practice at times, especially in some of the more elite firms. The author really showcases just how bad these companies are when it comes to the treatment of women as two of the book’s central characters are female partners in Howard Green who have to constantly deal with their male colleagues’ condescension and manipulations, and there are several pointed scenes where the arrogant male managers fail to listen to the women even when they are right. There is also a focus on the way law firms sycophantically woo potential clients, bending over backwards to get hired, and this adds some intriguing angles to the drama. Finally, there is also quite a dark look at the demand for profits over people, as there is a constant fear of firings and layoffs, even for the best employees. This critical presentation of a professional law firm is pretty striking and it results in some powerful scenes throughout the course of the book, especially as the people stuck in these firms often refuse to escape it, no matter how bad it gets. I felt this examination of the profession in Australia added so much to the outstanding story and it helps to make How to Kill a Client really stand out.
Overall, How to Kill a Client was an outstanding and captivating debut from new Australian author Joanna Jenkins and one I had a wonderful time reading. Blending compelling legal elements with a fascinating, character-driven mystery, How to Kill a Client has a brilliant story that takes the reader on a powerful and twisty journey. Slick, emotionally rich, and filled with exceptional characters, How to Kill a Client is one of my favourite debuts of 2023 so far, and I cannot wait to see what epic reads Jenkins will release in the future.