Last summer, Brad Meltzer succeeded where other upstart lawyers have tried and failed. With his first novel, The Tenth Justice, the newly minted Columbia law school grad took aim at the lucrative territory of legal thrillers owned by John Grisham and Scott Turow and came up a winner. The book — one of the summer surprise hits — racked up eight weeks on the New York Times‘ best-seller list.

Now comes Dead Even, his uneven but mostly smart, movie-ready second novel, which proves that his first hit was no fluke. Just as The Tenth Justice revolved around an uncomfortable question — How much can you really trust your best friends? — Dead Even grapples with a similar issue: Just how deep are the bonds of marriage? Can you trust your husband or wife with your very life?

In a premise that’s sure to jolt ’90s super-couples, Meltzer pits two married Manhattan lawyers against each other in a race that tests whether ego and greed will prevail over their mutual love and loyalty. Sara Tate is an assistant DA, and her husband, Jared, is an attorney at a white shoe law firm. They end up on opposing sides of a seemingly simple but ultimately complex and deadly burglary case. ”You and Sara are competitive enough,” Pop, Sara’s grandfather, warns Jared. ”You don’t need a trial to put you at each other’s throats.”

The O. Henry twist in the Tates’ war is this: Each has been visited by shadowy, outside forces that have warned them that if they lose the case, their spouse will be killed. And neither tells the other about the threats. Suddenly, the friendly sparring over who has the better legal mind or the true killer instinct becomes frighteningly significant. It’s as if Gil Bellows and Courtney Thorne-Smith, the sexy, edgy husband-and-wife legal team on Ally McBeal, were to be suddenly plunged into a battle to save each other based on their courtroom savvy.

Meltzer’s characters and dialogue are crisp and dead-on. Sara manages to be both funny and formidable. ”She likes to fight,” says Sara’s assistant. Jared, like most men married to firecrackers, is a bit of a wimp. ”That’s what Jared loved about Sara,” Meltzer writes. ”She did what he couldn’t.” Jared, who never before understood what it took to be a tough woman, starts to see his wife more clearly. ”For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been obsessed with success,” Pop tells him. ”You’ve been the golden boy, and Sara’s been the one who’s struggled. But now that the shoe’s on the other foot, you’re realizing that it’s a bitch to wear high heels.”

But all the sprightly characterization in the world can’t bolster Dead Even‘s heavily formulaic plot, which at 401 pages takes far too long to unfold. The story begins with a garden-variety burglary and grows increasingly complicated as more and more of the characters — from a genteel Upper East Sider to a handful of Jersey mobsters — are revealed to have a stake in the crime. Subplots seem tired and recycled, especially the one about a district attorney and the thugs out to get Sara and Jared. But Meltzer is so good at tapping into the yuppie psyches of Sara and Jared, their psychological game of cat and mouse, and the chilling office politics, that the book still manages to race along like a great beach read.

The fact that Dead Even is also a haunting portrait of a contemporary marriage seems to be a fortuitous afterthought. ”We can’t lose,” Sara tells Jared confidently at the book’s end. Having created two such memorable characters, Meltzer may feel the same way. B-

Dead Even
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