Following No Safe Place, last year’s offbeat venture into presidential campaign fiction, Richard North Patterson returns to his home turf with a painstakingly researched legal thriller-cum-murder mystery. But while Dark Lady shares all the familiar ingredients (family turbulence, career crises, and a crackerjack lawyer both ambitious and incorruptible) that rightly made Silent Witness and The Final Judgment best-sellers, this one is a minor effort and a major disappointment, a shambles of half-baked characterizations, slack pacing, and zero suspense.
In the rust-belt city of Steelton (a fictional hybrid of Cleveland and Pittsburgh), Mayor Tom Krajek, an old-time clubhouse pol, is running for reelection against Arthur Bright, the slick and savvy county prosecutor determined to become the first African-American to occupy city hall. Krajek has staked his reputation and political fortunes on the construction of a mega-million-dollar baseball stadium, which, he insists, will revitalize the city’s riverfront. Arthur calls the project a boondoggle, a calamitous scheme to drain public funds and enrich both the developer and Krajek’s cronies. But as the campaign draws to its finish, the sensational deaths of two prominent citizens threaten to inject scandal into the mayoral battle.
First, Tommy Fielding, the stadium’s construction supervisor, turns up dead of a heroin overdose. Days later, Jack Novak, a controversial private-practice attorney and one of Arthur Bright’s leading white supporters, is found hanged in his apartment — wearing a garter belt, black stockings, and high heels. Practically as soon as assistant prosecutor Stella Marz — nicknamed the Dark Lady for her merciless courtroom cross-examinations — begins her investigation, it seems certain that the two deaths are not only professional executions but somehow linked. They might even be connected to the power struggle between Mayor Krajek and Arthur. Complicating Stella’s job is the fact that, as a law student 15 years ago, she was romantically involved with Jack Novak, and owes her current job to his lifelong friendship with Arthur. Kinky sex, multiple murders, soap opera, city politics — a sturdy frame, as good and as potentially dramatic as anything Patterson has given us before. Yet once the premise and all of the players are in position, things turn clunky, then fall apart. Bad enough that the prose is cliched and the dialogue flavorless, but you quickly get a sinking feeling that the author is just going through the motions, narrating without any passion for his material, or even much interest. And heck, if he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, why should we?
Even worse, the story borrows every situational cliche we’ve ever seen on dopey TV cop shows. Stella is followed, ominously, when she goes out for a jog, and receives late-night telephone threats that end with a click! Next she finds out that several important file folders have been stolen and that a frightened informant has been brutally murdered (the body, naturally, tossed into a Dumpster). Then — but of course! — she’s given an impossible deadline, just a few days, to solve both murders; otherwise, she’ll be yanked from the case. And then, oh brother, then Stella’s cat is murdered, as a warning. I don’t know about you, but I think there ought to be a moratorium placed on pets getting offed in mystery novels, just as there really, really ought to be one placed on plots that pivot on a videotape that turns up, conveniently, neatly, preposterously, at story’s climax, revealing everything. Which, I’m afraid, is just what happens here.
Give Patterson this: Despite all the tired hokum this time, and a finale that lumbers along for nearly a hundred pages, he doesn’t fudge when it comes to his novel’s undergirding facts. Dark Lady is at its best during its frequent, if long-winded, tutorials on the poly-sci of stadium building. But that’s not enough to keep those of us outside the construction industry glued to the page.