By Tom De Haven
Updated January 17, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Silent Witness

  • Book

Nobody asked me, but Richard North Patterson (Degree of Guilt, Eyes of a Child, The Final Judgment) gets my vote for this generation’s best writer of legal thrillers. John Grisham is a good, often a brilliant, story man, but his prose thuds. And while Scott Turow may be a slick literary stylist, his plots can be awfully cumbersome and improbable. Take Patterson, though: He can plot as masterfully as he can write, and his novels — smooth, tricky, credible, and shrewd — demonstrate an acute understanding of both the law’s formal majesty and its endless capacity to induce dread.

SILENT WITNESS (Knopf, $25.95), his strongest fiction to date, is a tough and haunting exploration of friendship’s price and loyalty’s dangerous frontier — and of that thin line between love and hate.

In the fall of 1967, teenager Tony Lord is the athletic prince of Lake City, Ohio. But when his girlfriend is found strangled in the grassy park behind her house, the high school football hero, though innocent, becomes the local pariah. His guilt is taken for granted by nearly everyone, including, it seems, his closest friend and team rival, Sam Robb. There’s not enough evidence to indict Lord for murder, but Alison Taylor’s death and its spiteful aftermath turn him against his rust-belt roots. Embittered, he leaves home for college and never looks back.

Twenty-seven years later, Lord — now a successful San Francisco criminal attorney (”I’m not any lawyer,” he boasts, ”I’m much, much better”) — receives word that Robb has become the prime suspect back home in the bludgeoning murder of 16-year-old Marcie Calder, a troubled high school track star. Returning to the small, white-bread community he left nearly three decades earlier, Lord faces not only an ugly scandal that threatens to put his best-bud client in prison for life, but the rancorous legacy of the unsolved homicide that almost destroyed him as an adolescent.

While Lord’s reunion with Robb dredges up raw memories from the past, it uncovers a few unwelcome truths about the present as well. A bloated, self-pitying, middle-aged neurotic who also happens to be the assistant principal and track coach at Lake City High, Robb insists on his innocence. But it soon becomes clear that he’s been lying about his relationship with the murdered girl. When Marcie Calder died — her broken body was found on the shore of Lake Erie, at the base of a 60-foot cliff — she was pregnant with Robb’s child. Although he has committed himself to defending his old friend, Lord grudgingly realizes that Robb is ”either the victim of bad luck, worse judgment, and truly substandard morals” — or a pathological killer. And so the stage is set, brilliantly, for a murder trial-cum-morality play.

All too often in mysteries with irresistible plots, dazzling courtroom pyrotechnics, and knockout finales, the characters end up being types without nuance. Not here. No matter how central or peripheral, each player in Silent Witness is given generous shading and depth. And while the dialogue seems a little too articulate, almost theatrical (especially among teenage speakers), that’s a minor flaw in a novel otherwise so perfectly set up and carried off. A

Silent Witness

  • Book
  • Richard North Patterson
  • Knopf