By John Lescroart
Delacorte Press; 480 pages; $24.95

In the modern courtroom drama, the central concern almost always boils down to: Did the accused commit the crime or not? The best writers in the genre complicate that simple question to the furthest extreme, keeping their reader guessing until the last pages of their novels.

San Francisco writer John Lescroart has proved he knows how to craft a thriller that maintains that requisite level of suspense, writing with authority and verve about Bay Area crime, law and politics in such novels as "The 13th Juror" and "A Certain Justice." With his new novel, "Guilt," he makes an interesting narrative choice, presenting a central character who seems capable of almost anything and then toying with the reader's expectations of whether that protagonist is guilty in the eyes of the law or not.

As soon as San Francisco attorney Mark Dooher spots Christina Carrera dining at Fior d'Italia, he knows he has to have her, no matter what. That she is the girlfriend of one of his associates and a law student herself makes it easy for him to gain her attention The main obstacle in his pursuit of her, however, is that Dooher's biggest client is the Archdiocese of San Francisco. If he divorces his wife, he will also forfeit a major portion of his livelihood.

Things are already rocky enough for Dooher and Archbishop Flaherty. Lescroart writes, "Six months earlier, after an extensive two-year study by the Archdiocesan Pastroal Planning Commission had confirmed their predicted results, (Flaherty) had finally bitten the bullet and announced the closing of the ten least financially viable parishes in the city. He knew that the Archdiocese would not survive into the twenty-first century if it didn't take steps now. The city had taken a hard line after the World Series earthquake and passed an ordinance that assessed the Archdiocese $120 million for retrofitting their unreinforced masonry churches."

Worse still, a Vietnamese lawyer named Victor Trang is threatening a multimillion dollar lawsuit in response to the alleged sexual improprieties of a parish priest. But before Trang can complete the negotiations, he is stabbed to death. Homicide inspector Abe Glitsky suspects Dooher is responsible, but he can't find sufficient evidence.

When Dooher's wife Sheila is later killed in a similar fashion, Glitsky wastes no time in making an arrest. Defended by his best friend, Wes Farrell, with Christina Carrera assisting in the second chair, Dooher battles to retain his freedom in the face of overwhelming odds.

Lescroart does a good job of setting up the novel's central conflict, deftly delineating the characters and establishing a tangled web of hidden agendas and explicit untruths. For a while, he keeps the reader off-balance, showing only enough narrative cards to suggest that he might have something truly startling up his sleeve, that Dooher's guilt or innocence is not a foregone conclusion afterall. Unfortunately, long before Dooher receives a verdict from a jury, the reader loses patience with the entire enterprise.

Right from the start, the author portrays Dooher as an arrogant, manipulative jerk. In the first chapter, Lescroart writes, "He had never had to play by the same rules as everyone else. He was simply better at everything, smarter, more charismatic. He deserved more. He deserved better."

Unsympathetic main characters don't necessary cripple a book, but they need to be balanced by supporting characters who can stand up to their awfulness. In "Guilt," Farrell and Carrera are so oblivious to Dooher's schemes that one longs to shake some sense into them. Only good old Inspector Glitsky has enough on the ball to be a worthy opponent, but even he never gets to deliver a satisfying coup de grace.

In the end, "Guilt" proves to be a rather baffling exercise. One is left with the sense that Lescroart is reaching for something new in an increasingly cliche-ridden genre. Too bad that this time he isn't able to grasp the elements that might have made the novel surprising and engaging, rather than puzzlingly predictable and distancing.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry

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