Neon Dragon is the second book by John F Dobbyn that I have read but it is first in the series, unless the author plans to pull a "Star Wars" and publish events wildly out of order. I inadvertently flipped the reading order only because book two came to me first. I know it happens to everyone—discovering book two or three (etc) after a series has already gotten rolling. In this case, both volumes do stand alone. This legal thriller series centers around the cases of Boston lawyer, Michael Knight. The way Dobbyn handles backstory (in book two) was something of an unwanted revelation to me to take back to my own writing, and still may lead to my switching a story to first person, and losing masses of backstory by converting into anecdotal "partner" conversation. I was surprised how little I had to know about Knight to accept him.
Some of that mysterious backstory comes out in Book One.
As the first book, Neon Dragon answers a few questions I had about Knight's history, and especially his history with his mentor Lex Devlin. Some of that backstory was deftly sidestepped (in book 2) because it had been handled already in Neon Dragon and to be honest, I didn't miss it. Being the first in a series, certain things about the character simply must come to light, and although I do appreciate the deftness with which Dobbyn handles some of this inevitable backstory, I'm still on the fence about how much is essential. He does an excellent job on the slow reveal, and packs in a few surprises at every turn.
We learn that Juvenile Michael is caught in his first criminal act for a street gang and is on the brink of a life of crime when provided a straight and narrow and uphill path by a criminal trial attorney who teaches Michael how to set high goals and achieve them.
Neon Dragon establishes certain key and reoccurring characters including Michael Knight of course, his mentor Lex Devlin, the District Attorney and "First Lady of Prosecution" Ms. Lamb, Mike's college friend Harry Wong, and a few others. It also establishes Michael as being able to slip in and out of various worlds—although not the world of Chinatown—because of a Puerto Rican mother and a white father, and casts light on his rocky childhood (with an emphasis on the hood).
In Neon Dragon, while in the middle of a trial, a prominent judge finagles Michael into defending his son Anthony who was wrongly accused of shooting ancient Chen An-Young in Chinatown. It's kind of the legal equivalent of a "cute meet," which is to say, an unusual but interesting way to be introduced to the crime that will make up the body of this story. What follows is a glimpse into the inscrutable criminal underbelly of Boston's Chinatown, where nothing is what it seems. It is a glimpse that is believable and entertaining, stays far enough from the courtroom to avoid legalese-tainted boredom, and close enough to the characters to be practically un-put-downable (a terrible word, but one most authors would love to find in a review.)
These are the things I like about this book: the solid team, the sense of place, the action integrated with what feels like solid legal know-how, the who-what-where-why done-it placing it solidly in its genre. The lilt and lift of the story, however, is all due to the uniqueness and compelling charm of Michael Knight's voice: a little naive, a little foolhardy, a little braver than he ought to be, a little more musical, and a lot more sarcastic. Grisham had better beware. John Dobbyn's humor, pacing, and turn of phrase just may knock Grisham out of the front seat of the legal thriller roller coaster.