Book Review : Courtroom Drama Ruled Out of Order


The Touch of Treason by Sol Stein (Marek/St. Martin’s: $15.95)

In 85, yes, 85, books recounting the winning ways of Perry Mason, the late Erle Stanley Gardner did not bother to tell us much about his lawyer-hero’s history or personal life. I don’t think he ever mentioned the color of Mason’s hair, but he knew how to spin a yarn. Sol Stein, on the other hand, spends much of this courtroom novel exploring the off-duty activities and mental meanderings of defense attorney George Thomassy who is, by the way, no less professionally invincible than Mason.

Landed Gentry

Thomassy’s hang-up is his humble Armenian-American working-class origin. He doesn’t trust members of the landed gentry, which does not bode well for his romance with the beautiful-but-WASPy Francine Widmer. Nor does he like people who disrespect the law, which includes the smarmy CIA types who have maneuvered him into defending a young poli-sci grad accused of murdering his mentor, the Free World’s leading expert on Moscow machinations. Thomassy doesn’t know if he should withdraw from the case and settle down with the girl, or vice versa.

In most novels about court proceedings, readers are treated to intriguing insights, twists, surprise witnesses and the ever mounting suspense as the story winds its way to the inevitable verdict. Not here. Yes, we do learn a bit about courtroom manipulation and intimidation. And the wily district attorney (who, wouldn’t you know, is using the trial to further his political ambitions) has a few sneaky tricks up his Brooks Bros. sleeve. But Stein seems to be using the legal capers only to bide time between his hero’s soul-searching interior dialogues with himself.

Central Casting

Thomassy, who has appeared in two previous novels, is a very likable, fully conceived character. But the others come from central casting. And the book’s more serious themes--the treason mentioned in the title, flaws in the judicial system, the misuse of power by government agencies--are introduced but never addressed. By the time the trial grinds to a halt, we no longer care if the defendant is found innocent or guilty. That point, like nearly everything else except Thomassy’s personal dilemma, has become moot. It’s as if Stein grew so intrigued by his protagonist, he lost interest in his plot.