January 19, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

The Judge

Current Status
In Season
141 minutes
Wide Release Date
Vincent D'Onofrio, Robert Downey Jr., Vera Farmiga, Leighton Meester
David Dobkin
Warner Bros.
We gave it a B

THIS MIGHT SOUND nasty, but if I hadn’t committed to reviewing THE JUDGE (Putnam, $23.95), I would have quit reading it after the first few chapters. The characters in Steve Martini’s latest novel seemed instantly categorizable as either good guys or dirty dogs, and the premise didn’t grab me. (Neither did phrases like ”her perfume envelops me like mustard gas on a doughboy in the trenches.”) I’m glad I pushed on, though. Once the story gets rolling, it’s a top-notch legal thriller.

Judge Armando Acosta is any lawyer’s — and defendant’s — worst nightmare: arrogant, imperious, mean-spirited, a man who ”missed his calling with the passing of the Spanish Inquisition.” When he’s busted for sexually propositioning a vice squad decoy named Brittany Hall, there’s not a trial attorney in Capital City, Calif., who doesn’t relish the tyrant’s public disgrace. Although His Honor insists that he’s been framed, nobody pays too much attention. Because everybody wants Acosta to be guilty. Even the brilliant and usually benign Paul Madriani (last seen in Martini’s Undue Influence) takes giddy pleasure in seeing his old nemesis squirm.

But the snickering stops the night Brittany Hall’s seminude body, bludgeoned to death, is found inside a Dumpster. When a lens sliver from the judge’s prescription eyeglasses turns up embedded in the victim’s foot, the charge against him is bumped from solicitation to murder. And Madriani reluctantly agrees to become defense attorney for a man he hates.

The long, bruising trial that pits Madriani against Coleman Kline, an ambitious district attorney, is as good, and as vivid, as it gets; I dare you to reach for a bookmark while court is in session. Too bad the author can’t maintain that same kind of hypnotic control and dead-on authenticity when it’s in recess.

The budding romance between Madriani, a recent widower, and his sometime law partner Lenore Goya — she of the mustard-gas perfume — is bland stuff and so prudishly handled that I was never sure whether they’d started sleeping together. (Inquiring minds do want to know.) And the rogue cops who continually harass our lawyers in love could have lumbered in from a dopey comic book.

More damaging still is the gratuitous action crammed into a novel that simply doesn’t need it. After watching Madriani clamber over a slippery rooftop, clobber a thug, and chase a desperate fugitive halfway across town on foot, you get the feeling that the author doesn’t trust us to pay close attention unless he punctuates his courtroom drama with junk thrills.

But finally, because the centerpiece is so slick and so energetic, you can shrug off all that silly, needless padding. And with a surprise ending as bizarre and shamelessly brazen as anything that Agatha Christie ever dreamed up in her glory days, you can even forgive The Judge for its deadly dull opening chapters. Well, almost. B

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