Quick, name the two classiest big-time publishers of literature in America. Most book-biz people would immediately come up with Alfred A. Knopf (literary giant) and Farrar, Straus & Giroux (smaller, quirkier). Between them, these rivals have often dominated the market in serious fiction, poetry, memoirs, and criticism. But for more than 60 years, Knopf has also prided itself on scooping up the best suspense writers — from Dashiell Hammett to John Le Carré — and watching them climb the charts.
So it must have been galling to Knopf when bookish little FS&G launched the most profitable class act in recent mystery fiction: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent (1987). And you’ve got to assume that ever since, they’ve been on the lookout for a literate-lawyer blockbuster of their own.
They apparently think they’ve found it in Richard North Patterson’s Degree of Guilt. The title is an even more obvious echo than those of other would-be Turows. The author, like Turow, is a trial attorney. The plot elements — murder, sex, courtroom drama, a lawyer in personal hot water — are all in place. So is the massive hype.
Unfortunately, the resemblance ends there. Unlike Presumed Innocent, which stayed tightly coiled throughout its considerable length, Degree of Guilt rambles sluggishly for 548 pages. Mary Carelli, a glamorous and celebrated TV journalist, is under arrest for the killing of Mark Ransom, America’s ”most famous living writer.” Carelli claims that Ransom lured her to his San Francisco hotel room with promises of a Big News Story and then tried to rape her; she shot him in self-defense. But the local D.A. is skeptical because the evidence doesn’t jibe with Carelli’s version of what happened; he intends to prosecute. So Carelli turns for help to super-lawyer and former lover Christopher Paget, who takes the case for the sake of his 15-year-old son, Carlo, whose mother is…yes, Mary Carelli. (She gave up all rights to Carlo years ago.)
If it wasn’t self-defense, then what reason might Carelli have had to kill Ransom? The answer harks back, annoyingly, to Patterson’s first novel, The Lasko Tangent (1979), about Paget and Carelli’s iffy involvement in a Watergate-like investigation. While the prosecution zeroes in on Carelli’s motive, the defense — led by Paget’s associate Teresa Peralta — hunts through Ransom’s past for evidence that he was a rapist and pervert. And both investigations focus on a collection of therapy-session tapes that Ransom had gotten hold of, including the confessions of a long-dead Marilyn Monroe figure, the object of Ransom’s porno obsession, who recalls sexual abuse by a Kennedy-ish senator and her affair with a younger actress.
Despite this tangle of lurid secrets, however, Degree of Guilt doesn’t offer a single genuine surprise as it lumbers toward a soggy courtroom confrontation. Paget’s ethical dilemmas are distinctly ho-hum, his relationship with Carlo hits every sentimental cliché, and Teresa’s problems with a sexist husband seem sketched in by the numbers. Only an occasional patch of legal dueling flares with conviction. And the nearly nonstop talk, arch and often repetitious, yields just one bright line: ”I’ve often thought that a lot of lawyers would be tower snipers if they’d failed the bar exam.” So you don’t have to compare Degree of Guilt with Presumed Innocent to find it wanting. All on its own, contrived, flat, and more than a little exploitative, it’s a large-scale disappointment. C-