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THE SATURDAY READ

Whodunit is beside the point

Shadow of Power; A Paul Madriani Novel; Steve Martini; William Morrow: 392 pp., $26.95

July 26, 2008|Dick Lochte | Special to The Times

In Steve Martini's intriguing new novel featuring San Diego defense attorney Paul Madriani, the key piece of evidence that could turn the trial around for Madriani's client is "the J letter," a missing collectible reputedly penned by Thomas Jefferson that carries evidence of his endorsement of slavery in the Colonies. It and other elements make "Shadow of Power" a prime example of just how far the legal thriller has come since the days when a Perry Mason courtroom was the most dangerous place for an undiscovered killer to hang out.

Although "the J letter" is hardly the sort of get-out-of-jail card Erle Stanley Gardner would have had Mason play, a card is still a card. And "Shadow of Power," for all its smart, contemporary trappings, follows the time-honored Gardner formula and shows that, in the right hands, it still gets the job done.

First, we meet a victim with a plotful of enemies. In this case, the soon-to-be-deceased is Terry Scarborough, an academic-turned-author who, with one eye on history and the other on the bestseller lists, has written an exploitative tome. "Perpetual Slaves: The Branding of America's Black Race" calls attention to sections of the U.S. Constitution that, though amended, still contain offensive language reflecting America's "roots of slavery."

Scarborough's book has fanned racial flames, causing riots and demands for constitutional change, a plot point that may seem credible or not. In any case, he is planning an even more inflammatory sequel featuring the J letter.

Step 2 in the Gardner formula is the introduction of a naif who is arrested and put on trial for the murder. Here, instead of a showgirl or timid assistant (to name just two types of Mason clients), the hapless defendant is a dim Aryan Brotherhood wannabe who, as bad luck would have it, is a waiter in the hotel where Scarborough is staying on his book tour. While delivering a room-service lunch, he finds the author bludgeoned to death.

Step 3: A friend or associate beseeches the hero-attorney to take the seemingly indefensible case against the accused. The waiter's father, Madriani's "friend of long standing," drags the lawyer into a highly charged "trial of racism."

Step 4 introduces the true antagonist -- the district attorney. Again Martini updates the formula without breaking it. Like Mason's courtroom foe, Hamilton Burger, Madriani's nemesis, prosecutor Robert Tucci, has his amusing aspects -- he's known as Bob the Tush because of the size of his rear end and its "circular gyration as he speaks to offset the movement of his hands . . . like a washing machine on spin cycle with the load out of balance." For all that, Tucci is truculent, shrewd and a master manipulator of witnesses.

Gardner, a graduate of the pulps who wrote at a time when less was considered more in detective fiction, kept his pace relentless and his prose fairly lean, even after the books began to be serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and lost some of their hard-boiled tone and careful plotting. Told from an objective point of view, they rarely indulged in matters unrelated to the case at hand. After the death scene prologue, "Shadow of Power" is narrated by Madriani, who speaks in the present tense and shares a variety of opinions on law, politics and human behavior that may be off-case but are interesting and amusing.

But Martini's main deviation from the Gardner formula is his devotion to realism. In Mason's world, winning the case and unmasking the real killer were symbiotic events that resulted in one striking finale. "Shadow of Power" is mainly interested in the trial, not in whodunit. As Madriani travels to Washington, D.C., and eventually to Curacao in the Dutch Antilles, his goal is the discovery of evidence to cast doubt on his client's guilt; finding murderers is not his job. As a result, the focus is on the jury's verdict. The unmasking of the killer is almost an anticlimax. Yet somehow this approach is oddly refreshing.

"Shadow of Power" may be a bit different from stories that came from what Gardner called his "fiction factory," but one suspects that Gardner, who knew something about keeping readers happy, would be pleased to see that so much of his old formula is still alive and well, and being adapted to such entertaining purpose.

--

Dick Lochte is the author, mostly recently, of the comedy-thriller "Croaked!"

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