Sometimes the best I can summon up for a book is “competent.” That’s where I’m at with The Justice Project by Michael Betcherman. This young adult/new adult book is an interesting mix of thriller/mystery, but the tone and pacing and characterization leaves me a little confused about who the audience is and which themes Betcherman wants to emphasize.
Matt is finishing up high school, but his dreams of playing college football are over. Instead of leading his team to another championship he’s relegated to the sidelines because of a career-ending leg injury that has left him with a permanent limp. Nervous about how people in his hometown will look at him now, Matt considers relocating to Florida, where his mother lives. When that is no longer an option, Matt takes a summer internship with the Justice Project, which is this book’s version of the real life Innocence Project. He and his fellow intern, a peer named Sonja, take it upon themselves to investigate someone they believe is innocent even though the Justice Project can’t officially take his case. What they discover will shock Matt’s sleepy, football-obsessed town to the core….
Trigger warnings in this book for use of ableist slurs.
What confuses me about The Justice Project is largely the tone. Matt and Sonja are supposed to be 18, so this book seems poised on the upper end of the YA spectrum—almost NA. Yet the tone of the novel, at least until near the end, feels more Hardy Boys than anything else—in other words, on the younger side of YA. Matt and Sonja read more like two teenaged sleuths than young adult investigators. For most of the book, there isn’t much of an element of danger or risk for any of the characters. This changes abruptly in the final act, which introduces a fair amount of existential risk.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed The Justice Project, and there’s a lot of good I can say for it.
First, it’s obviously an issue book, and Betcherman’s handling of the issue of innocent people on death row, while perhaps not subtle, is thorough. He adequately represents different perspectives on the death penalty without creating straw men. Even Matt starts off as pro–death penalty.
That brings me to my second point of praise: Matt’s character development is decent. He starts off resentful of his injury, missing his girlfriend, etc. As the story goes on we see him starting to heal, start to look for another relationship, and basically grow as a person. He’s still not perfect by any means, but he at least changes. In particular, I enjoyed his friendship with Sonja and the way that Betcherman avoids any romance there. It was nice to have a strictly platonic male/female team-up in this kind of situation.
Going back to critiques, however, I’ll add that while Matt’s character development is great, most of the other characters are very flat. Betcherman focuses almost exclusively on the main plot, and it feels like the subplots are squeezed out by the end. Matt starts dating someone new, but she has … what, 5 lines? We see her two r three times and he texts her a couple of times, but otherwise all their scenes happen off the page. We don’t see much substance to them. Similarly, Matt takes a new job as the assistant coach of his old high school team … but most of that happens off page too.
Finally, I’m ambivalent about the portrayal of Matt’s disability. On the one hand, Betcherman captures the resentment and depression that can accompany these kinds of injuries. I think Matt’s behaviour, the way he sees himself, etc., are all very realistic. On the other hand, the treatment of his disability is fairly one-note. Everyone either doesn’t really mention it/is cool with it, or they give him weird looks. For a book that makes this kind of injury a major part of the protagonist, I would have loved to see a much more nuanced handling of the matter. Where are all the other disabled characters, for one?
If this book is supposed to be aimed at a younger audience, then I guess I see why it’s on the shorter side. It feels like it should be aimed at someone older, though, in which case it could stand to be longer and have a much deeper story structure. The Justice Project is intriguing and full of potential. It is, as I began this review with, a competent book—but it really could have been much more.