Now here's a stunning premise for a first novel: a criminal defense attorney who's shocked SHOCKED! to learn that his client may actually be guilty as charged. Unlike author Alan Dershowitz, that is, the undeniably brilliant, polymath Harvard law professor who, like Perry Mason, defends only innocent clients. Or so we're led to believe in Dershowitz's THE ADVOCATE'S DEVIL (Warner, $22.95), with the offhand references to his own star clients Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, anyway.
Okay, so maybe that's not quite fair. What Dershowitz's protagonist and alter ego Abe Ringel actually tells his inquisitive daughter Emma about O.J. is pretty much what all the talking heads say on Geraldo: ''He is innocent, unless and until he were to be found guilty and the conviction affirmed on appeal.'' No argument here. Somebody please wake me when it's over.
But meanwhile, back to Dershowitz's cleverly conceived but decidedly uneven first novel. Here's the deal: New York Knicks star guard Joe Campbell, nicknamed the ''White Knight,'' and possessor of the second-highest SAT scores in the NBA (behind David Robinson), stands accused of rape. On the surface of things, it's hard to imagine Campbell is being arrested, much less actually coming to trial. Seems Jennifer Dowling followed the superstar from New York to Boston, invited him up to her hotel room, undressed, and indulged in some real heavy petting. Then she changed her mind because of something Campbell whispered. On top of all that, the woman once made allegations of sexual misconduct against her boss and got caught lying about it under oath. The physical evidence could go either way.
But the prosecutor is determined, so enter famed Boston defense lawyer Abe Ringel, a bookish, rumpled idealist equally devoted to the law, the Talmud, his 17-year-old daughter, Emma, and the sound of his own voice. ''It was vintage Abe,'' we're told of some advice he gave Emma in a ticklish situation, ''perceptive, direct, proactive, and right ... Indeed, this uncanny ability to see through complexity and cut to the chase was one of Abe's great strengths as a lawyer.''
Dershowitz's own strength as a novelist, for that matter, lies in the same direction. When it comes to creating an ethical conundrum for Abe to lecture his assistants about, he's terrific. In the course of interviewing the charming, self-effacing basketball star, Abe stumbles upon information leading him to suspect that the White Knight may have picked out Jennifer precisely because she'd once made a bogus sex-crime charge. But Ringel can't be certain, the prosecutor's completely in the dark, and attorney-client confidentiality prevents him from telling anybody about his suspicions.
Alas, Dershowitz's weaknesses as a novelist overwhelm his story. The ingenious Ringel aside, the other characters are ciphers, and the dialogue often sounds like a soap opera parody. This is only for readers who can't get enough O.J. coverage on TV. C