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Sharp Write Turn

Ellis Cose, Known for Scholarly Works on Race, Pens a Racy 1st Novel

October 14, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Wisocki tilts back in his office chair, fondles his gun and sips Scotch. He has just lost his job to Francisco Garcia, a guy with the one qualification Wisocki does not possess: a Latino surname.

Wisocki lifts the gun. Garcia walks in. Wisocki shoots.

Is this the country's first affirmative action murder?

Or is it an accidental killing by a man thwarted in the act of killing himself?

That's the heart of the matter in a new courtroom mystery novel with a doozy of a multicultural plot. The only trouble with "The Best Defense" by Ellis Cose (HarperCollins) is that certain readers expected something different from its author.

This is Cose's first work of fiction after writing a string of scholarly volumes on race and gender--and after five years as a contributing editor at Newsweek, where his essays often focus on minority issues. So lots of Cose's admirers weren't ready for racy, instead of race. They weren't ready for a nerdy, bigoted white perpetrator who hires Manhattan's most sensuous, savvy, self-absorbed, Armani-clad female attorney--who happens to be African American.

And maybe they weren't ready for some of the scathing sentiments these fictional characters express, which come very close to feelings often revealed by real people.

The author was on promotional tour in Los Angeles recently, looking tweedy as he signed books and explained to fans just why this latest effort isn't more "serious." In short: He's human. He wanted a shot at writing something that is "pure entertainment" after years of being all intellect. Furthermore, Cose said, both he and some of the nation's reviewers are satisfied with the result.

The Washington Post reviewer might beg to differ, having called "Defense" an "ethnic stew" and "proof positive that novel writing is too important to be left to journalists."

"That's idiotic," grumbled Cose, whose laptop and writing tools littered his suite at the Westwood Marquis hotel. He is already working on a second novel.

At the Esowon bookstore in Westwood the night before, a fan had said he liked the new book, but wished it dealt more with workplace problems between whites and minorities. Cose, 47, says he understands where the man was coming from.

His now-classic 1993 book, "The Rage of a Privileged Class" (HarperCollins), became something of a bible to middle-class minorities who were successful in the corporate world and understandably wanted to maintain their status. "But there is such a gulf of misunderstanding and experiences between middle-class minorities and middle-class whites" that sometimes each does not understand what the other is talking about, Cose says. The "Rage" book helped create a comfort zone for dialogue between those with valid workplace problems and their white colleagues, who felt uncomfortable discussing such an anxiety-provoking issue as race, Cose says. No wonder many people want him to stick with what he has always done best.

But his wife, Lee Llambelis, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, is so frustrated with reaction to her husband's change of pace that she suggested he use a pen name for his next novel. Cose declines. People will just have to get used to the new, more imaginative version of Cose, he says.

"I didn't intend this new book to be a major statement on race. I wanted to write something interesting and fun that would play with some of the ideas I've written about in the past." He did succeed in that.

Felicia Fontaine, the fictional Harvard-educated attorney, defends the white shooter despite advice from an eclectic group of friends (black, white and Latino)--all of whom tell her the racially charged case is too incendiary for a black lawyer to take on; it's a media magnet that could derail her stellar career. Hispanic activists are already picketing the courthouse, demanding "Justice for Latinos." Black protesters are calling Fontaine a traitor to their cause. A group forms to support the beleaguered lawyer--and Fontaine herself sails through the proceedings with nary a wrinkle in her 100%-pure soie blouse.

But rage bubbles beneath the barrister's flawless surface. She has taken the case, she tells friends, because she believes in her client's innocence and because she refuses to be put into a "black box" where she selects cases based on skin color. And she, too, wants to be considered as an individual, rather than just as a member of a race.

In his personal life, Cose says, he does not spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about ethnicity. "There's just too much else to do; race becomes a backdrop, just as it is in the book."

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