"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

The Houston Lawyer Reviews Larry D. Thompson's Dead Peasants

Book Review

Dead Peasants
Author:  Larry D. Thompson

Publisher:  Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN:  9781250009494
292 pages

Dead Peasants is part courtroom drama, part romance, and part thriller. Most of all, this is a well-written story that is hard to put down once you open the first page. Dead Peasants is the third novel by Houston attorney Larry D. Thompson, a partner at Lorance & Thompson, P.C., who draws on decades of his legal experience to construct this highly credible page-turner.

The thriller’s main character is Jackson “Jack” Douglas Bryant, an old-school plaintiff’s lawyer—one like so many plaintiff’s lawyers we have known or at least heard about. After a considerably large verdict, Jack decides to retire from his Beaumont practice and relocate to his childhood hometown of Fort Worth. However, it does not take long before Jack gets restless in retirement, and he begins taking on some pro bono cases out of an office he sets up in his luxury RV.

June Davis, one of Jack’s pro bono clients, is a recent widow, who had lost her husband, Willie, of over 50 years. One day June stops by the RV with a check in hand for $400,000, made payable to Willie’s former employer, a car dealership. The post office had accidentally mangled the cover letter and delivered it to her because hers was the only name that they could make out. June and Jack think the large check is  quite odd, considering that Willie had retired 15 years earlier, and earned only $20,000 a year as a porter for the car dealership.

With the post office’s help, June unwittingly discovers what the insurance industry calls a “dead peasant policy.” In their heyday, from the 1980s to early 2000s, some employers would purchase life insurance policies on their low-paid rank-and-file employees without ever telling them. The employers would frequently keep paying the low premiums even after the employees retire or quit. When the covered person dies, the company would cash in on the insurance proceeds, with frequently no money from the payout going to the grieving family. When the public became aware of dead peasant policies, there was such an outcry that many companies stopped buying the policies and most states, like Texas, outlawed them.
Jack quickly puts his litigation skills to work and the stakes literally turn into life and death. His initial thought that the case involved only one policy proves wrong, as he uncovers that Willie’s prominent former employer had actually taken out policies on hundreds of other former employees. Further investigation reveals that several of these “peasants” turned up dead over a few short months with unexplained circumstances. When Jack starts turning over too many stones, he is threatened and finds himself amidst a plot that reaches far more than his own personal security and threatens his paramour’s life. 

Revealing much more of the plot line will compromise the suspenseful aspect of this story. Suffice it to say, this is a must-read for lovers of legal thrillers. And the fact that it is set in the familiar settings of Fort Worth and Texas law makes it all the more enjoyable.

Robert Painter is a trial lawyer with the Painter Law Firm PLLC, where he handles medical malpractice cases for plaintiffs. He is an associate editor of The Houston Lawyer.

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