Rachel Gold, wiser and widowed, makes welcome return in ‘The Flinch Factor’

‘The Flinch Factor’ by Michael A. Kahn

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Every few years since 1988, St. Louis attorney and mystery novelist Michael A. Kahn can be counted on to publish another story featuring Rachel Gold, a savvy, sassy, positively Jewish St. Louis attorney, the kind of engaging protagonist that one can develop a literary crush on. (Full disclosure: I am guilty of said  crush since reading Kahn’s first of eight novels featuring the sleuthing lawyer.)

Rachel Gold is part of the Jewish detective literary tradition of Sara Paretzky’s V. I. Warshawski and Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small. Rachel often gets involved in cases that seem routine or trivial at first, but then morph into complicated mysteries, which she probes like a Jewish Sherlock Holmes, assisted by her best platonic buddy, the in-your-face, brash and brilliant New Yorkish Benny Goldberg. 

After a stint with a large law firm in Chicago, Rachel has returned to her native St. Louis to set up a solo practice while Benny has conveniently become a professor on the faculty of the Washington University Law School.

In Kahn’s latest Rachel Gold novel, “The Flinch Factor” (Poisoned Pen Press, $24.95), the “stunning savvy” attorney has married, become a mother and then a widow, when her beloved 44-year-old husband Jonathan Wolf was killed in a plane crash. He had made a last-minute decision to hitch a flight on a client’s corporate jet to avoid a layover. Suddenly, through this absurd set of facts, Rachel’s happy marriage came to a tragic and horrific end.  She is getting on with her life by immersing herself in her legal work, always with the strong support system of her loving mom and confidant Goldberg, now a highly respected legal expert who frequently appears on “Meet the Press” and other Sunday talk shows to discuss high profile cases.

She is bogged down by what she calls “the Frankenstein case,” which she fears is a lost cause: representing a blue-collar neighborhood trying to fend off a greedy developer who is determined to bulldoze their beloved enclave in order to construct a tony gated community. She holds out the hope that she might catch a break from the “wacky” St. Louis County Circuit Judge Howard Flinch. Judge Flinch’s unorthodox judi cial conduct is called “The Flinch Factor” because of his outsized ego and tendency to disregard established laws and procedures in order to fulfill his wishes to become the next Judge Judy. Rachel’s engaging personality is a potent courtroom weapon, and she holds out the hope that the quirky judge might rule in her favor in the case, which has been grinding her down.

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In the midst of the “Frankenstein” case, another case falls into her lap. Susannah Beale, the sister of the incredibly handsome and wildly popular home remodeler Nick Moran, shows up in Rachel’s office begging her to investigate her older brother’s apparent murder. Police find Nick slumped on the front seat of his pickup along an isolated lane known to the vice squad as a meeting place for casual sexual liaisons among the gay community. Rubber tubing and a syringe are on the floor next to his body. Rachel herself is among Nick’s female clients who are shocked at the circumstances of his death, since none of them had known that he was anything but a straight male with a roving eye, and a large number of female lovers.

While the cops are convinced that it was an open-and-shut random drug overdose death in a sexual encounter gone bad, Susannah is convinced that Nick’s death involved foul play. As Rachel probes deeply into the circumstances around Nick’s life and habits, she comes to the conclusion that indeed Nick’s death was not an accident, and her investigation leads her to believe that somehow her frustrating Frankenstein case and Nick’s death might be related.

As is the case with the other Rachel Gold novels, there are numerous St. Louis references sprinkled throughout “The Flinch Factor.” Rachel meets Bobby Clay, a confidential witness, for lunch at Blueberry Hill. Rachel’s opposing attorney in the Frankenstein case, Rob Crane, is a Jewish graduate of Country Day School. And the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Riverfront Times and the St. Louis Zoo are also mentioned.

Kahn brings solid legal and literary credentials to his penning of these thrillers. He manages to juggle a busy law practice with his writing in addition to having raised, along with his wife Margi Lenga Kahn, five children and a host of pets. 

Kahn has said he got into writing legal thrillers on a dare from his wife, who grew weary of his boasts. He would read a paperback at the airport newsstand and announce, “I could write a better book than this.” “Then write one,” his wife said, “or please shut up.”

Mystery fans in general and Rachel Gold fans in particular are fortunate that Kahn took up his wife’s dare. With each new novel Rachel becomes more interesting, attractive, engaging and mature, and the mysteries become that much more intriguing.