Whom the gods would destroy, they first send to law school. Or so one would imagine from the recent spate of down-and-dirty courtroom thrillers written by attorneys that tend to make the inner workings of the American criminal justice system resemble the inner circles of Dante’s Hell. Steve Martini’s shrewd, engaging Undue Influence, depicting the trial of a crooked, philandering state legislator’s ex-wife for shooting his younger and flashier trophy wife to death in her lavishly appointed bath, does little to redeem the honor of the legal profession.
To begin with, if anyone deserved killing, it was Melanie Vega. Not content to steal another woman’s husband, she’d next conspired with the rat to seek custody of his children. Exactly why, however, isn’t immediately clear to Laurel Vega’s defense attorney (and former brother-in-law) Paul Madriani — the protagonist of the author’s earlier novels Prime Witness and Compelling Evidence. The flashy 26-year-old victim hardly seemed the mommy type. ”But then most legal family disputes,” Madriani tells us in the engagingly cynical tone that animates the novel, ”are more a matter of venom than reason.” Just about the only thing Madriani can be sure of is that his client is telling him less than the whole truth. Why, however, he can’t begin to guess, and isn’t certain he wants to. The deeper he digs, the more obscure the evidence looks. And if the accused has a credibility problem, so does everybody else involved with the case. In this novel, simple truth and justice are just about the last thing on anybody’s mind.
As a stylist, Martini — once a trial lawyer — has a weakness for legalisms and cliches. ”Time,” he writes, ”is a fungible commodity.” What’s more, ”a picture is worth a ream of words.” Some plot twists won’t be all that surprising to readers who are paying attention. But when it comes to a complex, riveting tale and nitty-gritty courtroom drama, Undue Influence will do just fine. B+