By Gene Lyons
Updated January 15, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Which came first, the story or the title? Given the vast number of courtroom thrillers in the spirit of Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent these days, it’s easy to imagine law-school seminars dedicated to turning legal catchphrases into catchy plots. But why should attorneys have all the fun? Maybe ballplayers ought to get in on the action. How about Infield Fly Rule or Designated Hitter? Or accountants? Married, Filing Separately and Itemized Deduction have a certain ring.

Actually, as readers of Philip Friedman’s previous novel, Reasonable Doubt, can attest, the New York attorney has an undeniable flair for turning complex legal issues into high melodrama. Last time, Friedman’s protagonist was a retired federal prosecutor defending his daughter-in-law for the murder of his son. In Inadmissible Evidence he switches sides, telling the story of a Manhattan prosecutor charged with retrying Roberto Morales, ”The Skyscraper Slasher,” a politically prominent real estate developer accused of murdering his lover in a fit of sexual rage.

To the cop who busted Morales, the case is simple. ”She cuts him off and calls him nasty names. He’s a hot-blooded Latin type — no offense — so he puts it to her good, one last time, and then he cuts her throat so she can’t give him any more grief. Seems pretty simple to me.”

But prosecutor Joe Estrada has problems with the evidence, not to mention his uneasiness about knowing that his Hispanic surname got him assigned to the case. Morales’ first conviction came about with the help of double hearsay evidence, later thrown out by an appeals court. But Estrada finds the victim’s diary, never disclosed to the defense, which may hint at other motives and suspects. Some witnesses’ memories change; others grow more emphatic. Friedman’s evocation of the complexity and uncertainty of a major homicide trial succeeds wonderfully. There is genuine suspense about the outcome.

The same, alas, cannot be said of the novel’s nonlegal subplots, all highly formulaic and unconvincingly narrated. The reader never believes in Estrada’s ethnic identity crisis — his father claimed to be descended from Spanish royalty and his mother’s WASP ancestors go back to the Mayflower — and neither cares a hoot about his disintegrating love life nor finds his high-minded resistance to the charms of the victim’s knockout sister even a tiny bit credible. A diverting entertainment all the same. B