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'The Oath' Promises Chemistry Between Clashing Attorneys


John Lescroart's new legal thriller, "The Oath" (Dutton, 480 pages, $25.95), begins with the head of Parnassus, San Francisco's largest and least humane HMO, getting hit by a speeding car and winding up a patient in his own inhospitable hospital. The incident seems like an example of karmic justice, until the gent is turned into an ex-HMO CEO, thanks to a fatal double dose of potassium.

Was it a mistake? Nobody buys that, least of all gruff homicide cop Abe Glitsky. He's convinced he's found the culprit in the dead man's hapless attending physician, Eric Kensing. The doctor not only despised the former chief executive's business practices, he also hated the man for stealing his wife.

Enter the series protagonist, defense attorney Dismas Hardy, to whom the suspect turns. To the dismay of his best friend Glitsky, the lawyer immediately begins wheeling and dealing for his client. But even with an unusually open-minded district attorney, Hardy's lot is not an easy one. Especially with a client who isn't willing to take his advice.

Lescroart, a former law clerk, seems to have kept current on the ins and outs of the profession, and he's developed an impressive knowledge of the tricks some HMOs play to keep profits high. But the reading enjoyment his novels provide continues to come mainly from the chemistry between his winning odd couple--the freewheeling Hardy and the irascible, by-the-book Glitsky.

Les Farrell, the hero of another of the author's legal series, has a minor role here, too. These characters and a particularly strong plot combine to make "The Oath" one of the better entries in the best-selling series.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's "Love Her Madly" (Holt, 507 pages, $25) is an odd tale of Lone Star justice and FBI hubris with a title that's more than a bit perplexing. Who precisely does the author mean to be the recipient of our mad love? Could it be Poppy Rice, the FBI investigator described by the book's press sheet as "a fox with attitude," who, on little more than a whim, travels way out of her Quantico jurisdiction to try to stop "the first execution of a woman in Texas since the Civil War?"

Or maybe it's the confessed murderess, Rona Leigh Glueck, whose death-row religious conversion has been so well-publicized that fundamentalist activists are wondering if she might be the new redeemer.

In either case, love might be asking a bit too much of the reading public. Neither character is all that lovable. Rona Leigh is either a formerly homicidal druggie-turned-Christian-bliss ninny or a still-homicidal, druggie-turned-sly sociopath. Poppy, the book's narrator, is an arrogant I'm-right-and-you're-an-idiot kind of fun gal whose vaunted irreverence and hardball feminism lead to such charming asides as her speculation that, since Jesus stopped "a gang of fellows from stoning an adulteress to death," the adulteress must have been "pretty."

Why is Poppy so bitter, so angry at organized religion, at Dan Rather, Texans in general and anyone who doesn't agree with her? Maybe it's because she's stuck with a name that sounds like a 1940s cereal. Maybe it's her zipless love life, though she seems quite proud of her proficiency at one-night stands.

In any case, Poppy is so full of herself and her ability to do what she wants when she wants to do it that, by novel's end, she hasn't the time or the sensitivity to express one word of regret that her reckless behavior has caused at least one murder and made possible untold future homicides. Love her madly? Mmmmm, maybe not.

"The Masks of Auntie Laveau," by Robert J. Randisi and Christine Matthews (St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, $23.95, 247 pages) is the second adventure of St. Louis-based amateur sleuths Claire and Gil Hunt (she's a shopping network show hostess; he owns a bookstore). This installment finds the St. Louis-based couple in New Orleans on the trail of a Mardi Gras mask maker named Auntie Laveau, who may or may not be a descendant of notorious voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

When Auntie joins her ancestor in death, the Hunts are drawn into a bizarre murder case that places Gil at the mercy of a machete-wielding madman. Randisi and Matthews, who also pursue separate writing careers (she's an author-poet-playwright; he's the prolific author of more than 100 crime and western novels and the founder of the Private Eye Writers of America), know how to whip up a tasty plot, especially when presented with a rich array of ingredients including voodoo, jazz, beignets, murder, white slavery and the Faulkner House bookstore.

Unlike many of the authors who write about New Orleans from an insider's perspective, taking too much of the city for granted, Randisi-Matthews present the gaudy old bawd as observed by curious tourists, eager not only to sample the town's many obvious attractions but to risk its darker, more decadent alleyways.

The Hunts are good company who, unlike some other crime couples, are able to converse without cringing cuteness. The book's pacing is another sign of professionalism, especially in the final chapters that shift between Gil in jeopardy (a welcome genre reversal) to the frustrated efforts of a rescue party consisting of Claire, her son and a local cop. In all, "Masks" could be a textbook on how to create a lively, accessible, smartly paced, entertaining suspense novel.

Dick Lochte, author of the prize-winning novel, "Sleeping Dog," and its sequel, "Laughing Dog" (Poisoned Pen Press), reviews mysteries every other Wednesday.

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