Sex and law In The Matter of Isabel - Paul Mendelson review comedy novel

What is it about sex and law that gets our pulses racing?

A famously dry and dusty profession, somehow the law can be remarkably sexy when on page or screen – whether it’s a John Grisham thriller, a stonking courtroom stand-off such as Tom Cruise vs Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men or the high-class Chicago law-soap that was The Good Wife (with its new spin off The Good Fight).

But does the trick only work when the writer has dead bodies, Mafia-based law firms, star actors or a US franchise to hand? M’lud, I bring to the court, as evidence, In the Matter of Isabel – a debut novel, written by TV comedy writer Paul A Mendelson.

Esteemed and funny

Mendelson has created a number of esteemed (and more to the point very funny) TV sitcoms. Anyone with a CV that includes the much-loved So Haunt Me and the BAFTA-nominated May to December has no need to apologise for writing a comedy novel.

However, TV credits do not necessarily translate onto the printed page, and first-time novels by much-loved screenwriters have been often known to fall horribly and embarrassingly flat.

So, how does Mendelson fare?

We start with a bang – or at least the distant promise of one – when failing trainee lawyer Rick is entrusted with helping the sexy and exotic Argentinian Isabel fight for custody of her young son.

Why her? Why him? These are questions that will hang in the air for some time as he struggles to remember the little law that he has actually managed to commit to memory and face down his own priapic urges.

Rick and Isabel are perennials of comic fiction – the nerdy klutz and the neurotic but sensual older woman – but no less funny for all that, and as the complications grow more complex and the entanglements more entangled we are drawn into a story that is both comic and at times quite moving.

Sex and law – but also heart

At its emotional heart is Isobel’s pain, as a mother unfairly separated from her child, with only the ineffectual, intellectually lazy Rick to help her get him back.

Mendelson is drawing not only on his huge experience writing comedy but also on his own time as a lawyer, when he handled – or mishandled (to use his own words) – a very similar case himself.

It’s not Dostoevsky, but then Mendelson is not trying to be. With In the Matter of Isobel he has created a fast-moving yarn, light on its feet and great fun from beginning to end.

I even shed a tear or two at the climax, and as a hardboiled reader and writer (who studied law for a whole six weeks) that’s not something I often say.

Get it here (UK) or here (US)