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Criminal Pursuits


The tradition of writing about the courts from within the courts goes back at least to Dickens (who had been a court stenographer) and Wilkie Collins (who never actually practiced) and up through Erle Stanley Gardner (who practiced until the fiction caught on) and Scott Turow. John Grisham's "The Firm" has been on the best-seller list for almost a year and, as the saying goes, is soon to be a major motion picture. Now there seems no lawyer in sight who does not have "Chapter One" scrawled on a yellow legal pad. What is most remarkable is that their powers of invention, and the excitements of the criminal-courts milieu, appear to be limitless.

The newest star among the fictionizing attorneys is Steve Martini of Sacramento, whose first novel, Compelling Evidence (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $21.95; 375 pp.) is long, rich, cunningly plotted, thickly populated with characters of palpable credibility and with relationships that seem in their painful stresses to have been observed rather than invented

Martini, who has handled both civil and criminal cases in private practice and has subsequently served as lawyer for the California Victims of Violent Crimes program, portrays life in the legal profession with a hard eye, lending weight to the current rash of scabrous lawyer jokes. But he also provides evidence that the idealism of Clarence Darrow still survives, however narrowly.

His protagonist, Paul Mariani, operates a small and scuffling Sacramento practice, having left a major firm after a fling with the oversexed wife of one of the senior partners (who has been under consideration for a Supreme Court post). The partner had been Mariani's mentor and thus the betrayal was particularly shaming. Now the partner is dead, a murder unsuccessfully disguised as suicide, and the widow is the chief suspect.

A show-boating criminal defense attorney (a malevolently delicious portrait) makes a mess of the pre-trial hearings, leaving the wife in deeper trouble than before and then skipping town, forcing Mariani (with a past that will not bear close examination in these circumstances) to take over the defense.

Ownership of the law firm becomes a major plot item, and seeing the wife convicted will not displease the surviving principal partner (another splendidly unsavory portrait). Martini is excellent on these corporate shenanigans.

The suspense of the courtroom stuff--the impatient judge, the sibilant meetings in chambers--is a given in the genre, and Martini creates it with great skill. The story is at heart a mystery and the denouement (especially with so short a list of suspects, including the dubious lady herself) manages to be a believable astonishment.

The book is a debut remarkable for its sheer storytelling professionalism, not least because the action seldom strays very far from the courtroom and the law offices. It is a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection.

The black experience has not been widely represented in crime fiction, Walter E. Mosley's Ezekiel Rawlins an important recent exception. The female black experience has been all but invisible, a misfortune now entertainingly corrected by Blanche on the Lam (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 192 pp.) by Barbara Neely, an African-American writer who lives in Boston and has been known until now for her short fiction.

Her heroine, Blanche White (the white-on-white name is the least of her annoyances), is a heroically proportioned cook and housemaid temporarily back in her North Carolina hometown to help care for her late sister's children. As we meet her she is being sentenced to some time in jail for passing bad checks, a second offense and a matter of bad timing rather than evil intent.

She's inadvertently allowed to wander away and she takes a job with a rich but screwed-up white family. At moments the story suggests a Eugene O'Neill plot seen from the pantry door: a sweet, somewhat retarded son not quite so dim as he seems, a neurotic sister and her ne'er-do-well husband, and the grande dame of the family, who drinks a lot and controls the purse strings.

Neely's special ingenuity in creating the plot is that, given the nature of the society, Blanche can essentially only be a witness, not really able to shape or investigate events (which include the murder of the corrupt local sheriff and of a harmless black gardener, and other deeds from the near and distant past), although she figures them out for herself and the reader. And in the end she gets to do a little neat shaping after all.

What gives the book a more than polite interest are Blanche's tough comments on her world. "Blanche had never suffered from what she called Darkies' Disease," Neely writes. "What she didn't understand was how you convinced yourself you were actually loved by people who paid you the lowest possible wages, who never offered you the use of one of their cars . . . who gave you sachets and handkerchiefs for Christmas and their children stocks and bonds."

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