What could possibly be more au courant than a novel that melds White House intrigue with courtroom drama? At times, the parallels between Richard North Patterson’s Protect and Defend and our ongoing real life politico legal epic are downright spooky. The book begins in the wake of an extraordinarily close presidential election night – although Democrat Kerry Kilcannon is declared the winner the following dawn after narrowly carrying California (I guess truth really is stranger than fiction).
Patterson previously wrote about the Kilcannon clan in 1985’s ”Private Screening” and 1998’s ”No Safe Place,” and he knows his political stuff. (He also knows his politicians – among those thanked in the acknowledgments are his ”old friend, President George Bush” and ”President Bill Clinton, who shared his thoughts, and opened doors.”)
The author is also an ex attorney, as evidenced by his excruciatingly protracted courthouse sequences. ”Protect and Defend” crosscuts between its D.C. scenes and a San Francisco trial in which idealistic young lawyer Sarah Dash represents Mary Ann Tierney, a 15 year old girl seeking a late term abortion against the wishes of her fervently antiabortion parents. It turns out Dash once clerked for Masters in a federal appeals court, so it’s clear that these plotlines will eventually converge. But it takes a looong time.
It doesn’t help matters that Sarah Dash is a cipher without a life; all legal work and no play make her a very dull character. Ironically, several of the book’s minor figures are more fully fleshed out, as Patterson is able to capture their essences in single sentences. (We can immediately picture Oklahoma senator Dave Ruckles, who is limned as ”mean as a snake, with the sincere voice and constant eye contact of an evangelist or a stockbroker.”) The author overdoes the eyes as the window to the soul device, however, as he describes the orbs of at least seven other characters.
Patterson ultimately acquits himself by drawing ”Protect and Defend”’s two central players with masterful depth. Chief Justice nominee Caroline Masters, whose prior bench adventures include the best sellers ”Degree of Guilt” and ”Eyes of a Child,” is a paradoxical mix of ambition and compassion. (Reading the previous Masters and Kilcannon novels isn’t necessary in order to understand this one, but it helps.)
When Masters must justify her murky past before a hostile Senate panel, it’s hard not to picture Joan Allen as the embattled vice presidential nominee in ”The Contender” – and wish the actress had waited for this more complex role. And like ”The West Wing”’s Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen), President Kerry Kilcannon is a man possessed of both prodigious intelligence and genuine principles. In other words, he’s the antithesis of… well, is it too late to demand a revote?