We gave it an A
Basement ratings for TV’s critically acclaimed Murder One may signal the end of America’s mania for courtroom drama, but I’m not convinced. More likely it’s just another symptom of Simpson overload. And if there’s any real justice, it won’t keep too many readers away from the new novel by Richard North Patterson (Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child). His most entertaining legal thriller to date, The Final Judgment (Knopf, $25) is also a shrewd murder mystery that continues to baffle right up to the last few pages.
Caroline Clark Masters, a 45-year-old attorney, has just been nominated by the President to the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco when she receives a telephone call from her estranged father.
After not having seen or spoken to Caroline in more than two decades, the imperiously patriarchal Judge Channing Masters pleads with her to return to rural New Hampshire and defend her niece, who is about to be indicted for homicide. College-age Brett Allen is the prime — and so far the only — suspect in the lakeside murder of her boyfriend James Case, whose throat was slashed, his head nearly severed, by a fishing knife. Brett was discovered nearby—stoned, naked, and covered with blood.
Although her involvement in a sensational trial could persuade the President to withdraw her nomination, Caroline goes back home, determined merely to assess the situation and quickly leave again. But after meeting her niece and discovering how substantial, even overwhelming, the evidence is against her, she decides to risk her judicial career and take on Brett’s defense.
For all of its Perry Mason stuff, Patterson’s novel is really a New England gothic with all the gloomy trappings: an embittered family, an isolated mansion, adultery, suicide, illegitimacy, betrayal, madness. While Caroline, who remains 99 percent convinced that Brett is guilty as charged, tries to weaken the prosecution’s case, we gradually realize why she resents her half sister so forcibly, scorns her brother-in-law, despises her father, and feels fiercely protective of her niece.
It’s all very melodramatic (and the plot contrivance that pits Caroline against a prosecutor who was an adolescent sweetheart is pure soap opera), but everything is done with great inventiveness and craft. Just when you think you’ve figured out where the events are leading, something truly surprising happens, or yet another dark secret is revealed, and suddenly you’re clueless as to what the climax will be. When it finally comes, it’s a nasty shock.
Patterson’s storytelling has never been so controlled and nimble, or quite so confident. When he writes about the vanities and crushing guilt of the rich, the prideful, and the privileged, he’s as good as John O’Hara. And like O’Hara, Patterson knows the power of crisp, authentic-sounding dialogue—lawyers sparring, relatives quarreling, former lovers sharing memories and regrets.
Best of all, there are just four witnesses at the trial — actually, a pretrial hearing — and the proceedings zip along without a single sidebar. A