Confession time. About a quarter of the way into Compelling Evidence — the latest Presumed Innocent wannabe — I suddenly felt sure I knew whodunit — and why. This wasn’t just the usual passing suspicion, mind you, but what seemed like a gut certainty. So I committed the armchair detective’s unpardonable crime: I peeked. And, sure enough, a quick glance at the final chapter told me I had guessed right.
Which doesn’t necessarily mean you will. After all, reviewers specializing in mysteries read entirely too many of them to be reliable indicators of whether or not a plot is tricky enough. Presumably the evaluators over at Book-of-the-Month Club, who’ve made Compelling Evidence a main selection, found the surprise ending a bona fide surprise. In any case, the point of my confession isn’t that I figured out Steve Martini’s puzzle too soon. No, the point is that even after knowing I knew the book’s Big Secret, I still went back and kept reading, quite happily, right through to the end. That’s because Compelling Evidence, in its brash, slightly crude way, may be the most enjoyable and engrossing of the many murder-trial melodramas to come along since Scott Turow resuscitated the game.
Like Turow, Martini gives us a lawyer in torment (always an appealing spectacle), a narrator-hero who suffers vast guilt — and lots more besides — for the sin of adultery. Paul Madriani was once a rising star at Potter, Skarpellos, the swankiest law firm in Capitol City, Calif., and the protégé of brilliant, revered Ben Potter himself. But then Paul stumbled into a brief affair with Potter’s much younger, sexually voracious wife, Talia — and was quietly expunged from the firm. Now he scrapes by in solo practice, stewing in regret over his betrayed mentor, his fizzled career, his ruined marriage.
So Paul isn’t exactly the most tasteful choice for defense attorney when sultry Talia is indicted for the murder of her husband, who has been found dead in her office, the top of his head gone and a shotgun lying on the floor. Nonetheless, Talia trusts no one but Paul to save her from a heap of circumstantial evidence — her alibi’s full of holes, her infidelities are common knowledge, she has money motives galore — and the gas chamber. Paul’s trial strategy? ”The old SODDI defense — Some Other Dude Did It.” The dude in this case being Anthony Skarpellos, the dead man’s snaky law partner, who has been raiding the firm’s client trust account-and who’ll inherit Potter’s estate if Talia is convicted of his murder.
Martini livens up the familiar character types here — and the serviceable murder-mystery suspense — with street-smart flavor and bulldozer energy. A journalist-turned-lawyer, he does even better with Paul’s mastery of cross- examination and other courtroom tactics. How to neutralize damaging expert testimony on guns, blood, or strands of hair. How to keep grisly photographs from being shown to the jury. What to do when the judge turns on you. (This one goes bananas when word leaks out about Paul’s old liaison with Talia.) Authentic, unglamorous questions about legal procedure and strategy — the kind that fascinated TV watchers during the William Smith trial — give Compelling Evidence its distinctive edge.
Is it in a league with Presumed Innocent? Of course not. But even without Turow’s depth, originality, and polish, Martini — whose writing occasionally gets downright sloppy — never bores. And whether or not you’re shocked or dazzled by the final revelation, you’ll be decently entertained by everything that leads up to it. B+