One of the most popular literary genres in the world is crime fiction, and one of the most specific subsets of that genre to come out of the United States is the legal thriller. Most readers in the United States at least have heard of John Grisham, even if they have not read his novels, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is still taught in schools today. Legal thrillers are a type of story focusing on some sort of investigation, with a particular focus on courtroom proceedings or the legal system of its setting. More often than not, the best legal thrillers are also interested in examining social justice as it pertains to a legal system while its heroes fight uncover misdeeds or prove their clients innocence. Our heroes tend to fight using legal means, working within the system with competency. Meanwhile, villains tend to be corrupt, either working outside the legal system or taking advantage of the system through their corruption. No matter the setup, this is a genre that is at its best when tackling real-world, timely issues.
Thank you to Ooligan Press for providing me with an Advance Review Copy of Extreme Vetting!
Just as most protagonists are lawyers in the world of legal thriller, many of its authors are lawyers or judges, inspired by their own professions. Roxana Arama, the author of Extreme Vetting, is neither a lawyer nor a judge, but her debut novel is not your typical legal thriller either. Having originally studied computer science in Bucharest, Romania, Arama eventually emigrated to the United States to work in software development. However, the love of writing can be found in people from all backgrounds and professions, and Arama also obtained a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Seattle. Before Extreme Vetting, Arama had also published short stories and essays. An immigrant herself, Arama’s first novel is a legal thriller specifically revolving around immigration law in the United States, a hotbed subject matter that shows no signs of cooling but it nevertheless worth talking about.
The primary focus of Extreme Vetting is the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, and their negative effects on families and communities. While the action is centered in Seattle, Washington, the story and characters would have been relevant anywhere in the country. While ICE’s stated mission is to protect the country from crime that crosses the border and illegal immigration that threatens public safety, the department is a recent creation, having only been around since 2003, formed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The main character of the novel, Laura Holban, is constantly finding herself on the other side of a courtroom from ICE’s trial attorneys, as she performs her duty as an immigration lawyer, defending undocumented people and asserting their right to remain in the United States. Setting her up against a real-world entity helps ground the characters, and Arama does an excellent job at building her out and making Laura feel real. Not just Laura, but nearly every character in the novel received a degree of development, including the main villain for much of the story. It is Arama’s attention to detail and empathy which brings these characters to life on the page.Laura Holban is a Romanian-American immigrant lawyer living and working in Seattle, Washington with her own, small immigration firm, working to defend her clients to the best of her ability. When we meet her, she is successfully arguing a case while paying close attention to her syntax and pronunciation of English. The Laura we meet is extremely competent and shown to be a great lawyer, but even great lawyers do not always win their cases. It is clear that Arama has done a tremendous amount of research into not only the legal system, but the code of ethics lawyers are expected to abide by. On top of likely being overwork (at one point, Laura mentions having over fifty active clients, on top of the new client that forms the backbone of the plot), Laura is also a single mother to a teenage daughter. Raising a child is already hard enough without the added stress of the federal government setting out new immigration law rules and guidelines nearly every week, which Laura needs to stay on top of at all times. Enter Emilio Ramirez. When we meet Emilio, he has been living undocumented in the United States for roughly twenty years. He wife is also undocumented, but their two teenage sons were both born and raised in Washington state. He is shown to be a pillar of his community, with a large, beautiful house he owns free and clear. With him as he client, Laura finds herself going up against the head of the ICE trial attorneys in Seattle, Mason Waltman. Patriotic and corrupt, Mason forms a dangerous enemy as he tries to do everything in his power to deport Emilio at the request of a mysterious contact in Mexico.
Most of the novel is told from the close third-person point-of-view of Laura Holban, but we also gain insight into other characters as well. We see moments from Emilio’s eyes as he navigates his time in ICE detention, as well as experience his sixteen-year-old son David’s attempts to help his father and Laura. On the villainous side, Arama also writes some sections from Mason Waltman’s POV, an inspired move that serves a dual function. By showing us the main villain, we learn more about the wider conspiracy against Emilio, fleshing out why certain things happen, but Arama also works to humanize Mason. We see him as a loving father and husband who seems to genuinely believe he is serving his country, not fully comprehending the harm he is causing. Some of the most entertaining moments are also seeing him learn about the progress Laura makes in her defense of Emilio. For her part, Laura is a fascinating main character to follow. She is both hard-working and anxious, struggling to understand her daughter while never giving up on her clients. Laura holds a great deal of empathy of other immigrants, even as she acknowledges how different everyone’s background is. Arama does an excellent job at making Laura Holban an extremely relatable character, while never letting go of what makes her unique.
There are two conflicts at the heart of Extreme Vetting. On the one hand, there is the mundane evil of Laura fighting against immigration law and ICE to protect Emilio and his family. The way in which this unfolds manages to strike the perfect balance between realistic and intriguing. On the other hand, there is also the conspiracy involving Mason Waltman and the criminal network, to which he sells the personal information of the people ICE works to deport. Most of that mystery is revealed through his POV section as, for the majority of the book, the protagonists do not even know that there is a conspiracy to unfold. Rather, Emilio’s case is merely the latest aspect of the conspiracy, and Laura is too busy fighting against the system itself. That is not to say that the non-conspiracy parts of the book are boring. Far from it, in fact. Arama works to endear the characters to us, and succeeds in having readers empathize with them. We want Emilio to remain in the United States with his family, and we see how the only reason ICE finds him is due to someone else’s xenophobia, accusing him of immigrating illegally without any evidence or proof. On top of that, seeing the variety of tools and methods ICE uses in the book, which are taking directly from the real world, makes readers angrier and angrier at the unnecessary harm being caused.
Overall, Extreme Vetting is an excellent legal thriller with a pace that is sure to make readers never want to put the book down until the last page is turned. It is easy to care about the main characters and their plight and, while the villains are humanized, we never forget that they are villains. Truth be told, one does not need to try very hard to make ICE the villains of a story. However, by making Mason Waltman corrupt, on top of everything else, Arama gives the heroes a villain they can reasonably defeat. For someone corrupt, you can have them arrested or expose their crimes. But what do you do when the antagonist is the entire system itself? Setting up Laura Holban against the legal system, itself a worthy adversary, could have made for an intriguing thriller, but would have proven difficult to provide a satisfying conclusion to the novel. Extreme Vetting has proven to be an excellent debut for Roxana Arama, and it will be exciting to see where her literary career goes next.
Extreme Vetting will be released on February 7th, 2023 and can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 5 days
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