Publishers Weekly — starred review
Wolk’s taut legal thriller powerfully depicts an innocent woman caught up in the machinery of the criminal justice system. Carly Daniels does data entry for Archer Life Settlements of Southern California. Despite her mostly clerical duties, a federal investigation of Archer Life for insurance fraud catches her in its net. The company specialized in viatical settlements in which terminally ill people sold their life insurance policies for cash. The Justice Department believes that Archer Life routinely bought policies it knew were fraudulent, taken out by policyholders who had lied about serious pre-existing medical conditions—a practice called clean-sheeting—before applying for coverage. Daniels does her best to aid the probe, but is indicted anyway, and faces the prospect of jail, which is especially disturbing given her son’s Asperger syndrome. The details of the alleged scheme are clearly conveyed, but the book’s real strength stems from its David vs. Goliath battle to avoid an unjust criminal conviction.
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A Good Read that Also Instructs
Author Gloria Wolk enables the reader to share a life-changing experience–the disruption, stress, anxiety, depression, sense of helplessness, financial hardship, and terror that an innocent person experiences when wrongfully accused and indicted for a crime he or she did not commit. In “Accidental Felon,” Carly Daniels is a single parent of a special-needs son. A modestly paid clerical worker at Archer Life Settlements, a viatical insurance company, she is targeted, along with two brothers who are principals in the business, by the Department of Justice in an investigation of an alleged illegal insurance scheme that defrauded investors.
It’s clear to the reader that Daniels does not have the knowledge to invent or implement such a scheme nor is she the kind of person who would do so. She certainly does not share the financial rewards of her supposed partners. While the instant loss of her job and livelihood is troubling, Daniels trusts that the system will ultimately get it right as she cooperates with the Justice Department in investigating the company’s files.
But none of this changes the outcome: Carly Daniels is indicted and is tried alongside her former employers.
The reader shares Daniels’ gradual awakening to the fact that prosecutors in this case are willing to incentivize known liars and snitches to testify against her. Her attorney seems distracted, condescending, and ill equipped to provide an adequate defense. The courtroom becomes anything but a level playing field, as federal prosecutors seem more determined to get convictions than find true justice.
Readers who have strong trust in the justice system may be surprised as they share Daniels’ awakening to the possibility of and contributors to injustice. Wolk’s realistic characters–Carly, her son, her brother, and a veterinarian friend–are likable and familiar. Their everyday-people qualities make this journey toward injustice even more frightening.
As co-author of “False Justice: Eight Myths that Convict the Innocent,” I recognize many contributors to wrongful conviction in “Accidental Felon” and commend Author Wolk for a good read that also instructs
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Carly Daniels is the recently-widowed mother of a 10-year-old son with Aspergers Syndrome. Her financial resources are scant. Her job at Archer Viatical Settlements seemed routine enough until she is caught up in an investigation of Archer’s activities which turn out to be nowhere as benign as they appeared. What’s even worse, she herself is under investigation because her employers have implicated her in Archer’s misdealings, and the lawyer her employers hire “on her behalf” are of no help to her..
Ms. Wolk does a fabulous job in showing how trapped and helpless — and fearful — an intelligent, sensible woman would feel and possibly react when boxed into a dreadful situation. Further, Ms. Wolk’s experiences on viatical settlements provides the rich texture to her novel in the same way that John Grisham’s legal background provides a highly textured framework for his novels. The prologue gives the backdrop for the story to come.
Carly does not have to fight the battle alone; she finds she has allies — her brother, the veterinarian who treats the puppy Carly brought in after it had been thrown from a car, and they bring in other unexpected allies. These are vivid and well-drawn characters.
The wicked are undone, in part by their own greed and in part by the efforts and knowledge of Carly and her allies. It all worked out well, and without the aid of a deus ex machina.
A good read — one gets the feeling of real people populating this novel, real people doing what real people do, and at a good pace.
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A Good Read, and Thought-Provoking, Too
Marion Gropen “publishing consultant” (Gropen Associates, NY, United States)
I very much enjoyed this debut thriller, although I found its picture of rampant injustice in our legal system very disturbing. I know that the system works more often than not, but the pictures drawn here are clearly pulled from actual cases.
The plotting is tight, and the characters seem realistic. They’re attractive enough to pull you into rooting for them, without being ridiculously flawless.
I recommend this book for readers who like Grisham and Turow.
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Readers interested in justice, take note
Carol James (Austin, TX)
Accidental Felon is a compelling story of legal suspense. While fictional, the author’s extensive experience in the area of viatical settlements creates a realistic backdrop. Wikipedia defines a viatical settlement as: “the sale of a policy owner’s existing life insurance policy to a third party for more than its cash surrender value, but less than its net death benefit.” Many of those looking for viatical settlements do so because they are under duress. They might need the money to pay for expensive medical treatments or perhaps they can no longer afford the premiums.
Unfortunately, unethical companies and individuals have found a myriad of ways to exploit both the insurance companies and policy owners. And, similar to the recent fiasco in the financial industry, the government seems just as eager to prosecute individuals who were caught up by the deception as the key players who architect, orchestrate, and benefit from fraudulent practices.
Carly, the main character in Accidental Felon, does simple data entry for Archer Life Settlements. In a tangled web of circumstance and ambition, she becomes a target of prosecutors–along with the owners of the company. Unable to afford her own legal counsel, she accepts an attorney hired by Archer who has no interest in defending her innocence. As a single mother with a special needs child, she faces the prospect of a long prison sentence.
Carly’s story illustrates the multi-faceted moral issues involved in prosecution. As the author’s website states: “This happens every day in courts throughout the nation-innocent people falsely accused of crimes.” If you are interested in legal suspense, viatical settlements, prosecutorial malfeasance, or just plain justice, you will enjoy this book.
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A Legal Thriller on par with John Grisham
Charles D. Hayes (Wasilla, AK USA)
There is a Kafkaesque feel to this well crafted page turner that fiddles with your blood pressure. I would wager this novel is headed for the big-screen, not because it’s another riveting court drama (which it is), but because it deals with something deeply disturbing that we all know to be true, but seldom give the kind of attention we should. Simply put, there is a seething bureaucratic malignancy at work at the heart of our legal system. Somewhere along the way the goal of achieving justice has been overwritten by careerism. Wolk makes this point better than anyone I’ve read in a very long time. Highly recommended.
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Another Unfortunate Account of Injustice
Steve Whiting (Wisconsin, USA)
Although written as a fiction with disclosure by the author that the story “was inspired by actual events”, this is another unfortunate account of how our federal criminal justice system is out of control. This book centers around Carly Daniels who is raising a child on her own who needs special attention. As a clerical employee at a viatical settlement company, and while clearly having no involvement in the alleged crime, Carly finds herself the target of a federal criminal investigation.
As many other individuals who find themselves charged with a federal crime in the real world, she has to make perhaps one of the most difficult decisions in her life. That is, whether to agree to the prosecutor’s plea deal of a somewhat predictable outcome or face the wrath of a sentencing judge in the event she is found guilty by the jury – a draconian sentence that will be, in most cases, substantial.
As very few innocent criminal defendants choose to do in real life, Carly decides to go to trial. This book by Gloria Wolk illustrates her considerable knowledge about the real workings of our federal criminal justice system. Her compelling and disturbing story should cause anyone to think twice about their belief on what really goes on in our federal criminal courts throughout our country.
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Too real and too scary for fiction
Michael Louis Minns
I am a Wolk fan for life now… I thought she was a trial lawyer until I read the credits at the end of the book… because she knows the real ins and outs of real life court so very well. Her lead character Carly tugged at my heart, made me cry… and I won’t say how I felt at the end of the book because it might give too much away… and because the feelings were mixed anyway.
The system is flawed. Wolk highlights its real failures. Her characters scream for truth and justice in a system of rules and contests that doesn’t have much interest in real justice.
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A Pleasure to Read
It’s a pleasure to read a novel based on factual information of which the author so clearly has an excellent grasp. The situation presented here is one we seldom give any thought to, yet it is apparently all too easy to fall into the same trap as our heroine. It reminded me of a movie I saw a long time ago: “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That, too, was based on an actual case. If I found any fault with this work, it’s that the heroine seemed too passive to me and was constantly at the mercy of events seemingly beyond her control. I would have liked to see her grow more through this experience, changing for the better as a result. However, this void was filled by one of the investigators, whose character travels a more than satisfying trajectory. Truly a must-read for anyone who enjoys a good story and also wants to know more about the ins and outs of our justice system and viatical settlements.