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Tough Love

<i> Michael Harris is an editor at the Riverside Press-Enterprise and a freelance writer</i>

Paranoia is Brad Meltzer’s stock in trade as a writer of legal thrillers. In his debut, “The Tenth Justice,” a Supreme Court clerk stepped into serious trouble by confiding information about a pending verdict to a supposed friend. In “Dead Even,” a husband and wife, both lawyers, are on opposite sides in a case whose outcome could be fatal to either one.

Sara Tate, fired by a private law firm, takes a job as a New York City prosecutor just as the district attorney’s office faces mass layoffs. Her best hope of ducking the ax is to get a high-profile case and win it. Egged on by her assistant, Guff, among others, she swipes a case folder marked for one of the office’s top guns. To her surprise, it isn’t the homicide she expected--just a third-rate burglary. But she’s stuck with it.

Meanwhile, Sara’s husband, Jared Lynch, is bucking for a partnership in his private firm. By Jared’s golden-boy standards, things aren’t going well. He has failed to keep an old client from paying heavily in a sex-harassment case, and his bosses complain that he isn’t bringing in enough new clients. Then comes a chance for redemption: His services are eagerly solicited by Tony Kozlow, the small-time hoodlum accused of the same burglary Sara’s prosecuting.

Oh, and one other thing, remarks Oscar Rafferty, the businessman mysteriously bankrolling Kozlow’s defense: If you lose the case, we’ll kill your wife.

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Sara is subjected to equal pressure. (Long before we learn why Rafferty and Kozlow are resorting to such heavy-handed tactics, we see that the ranks of the bad guys are divided.) A man with sunken cheeks bugs her home, wires her computer, ambushes her in women’s restrooms and demands that she win the case. If not, he says, he’ll kill her husband.

So Sara and Jared try to save each other, and each, unaware of the real motives, naturally interprets the other’s frenzied efforts as yuppie careerism and manipulation of the worst sort. Before long, they are snooping in each other’s briefcases. Can love survive?

More to the point, however, do we care? In order to make Jared and Sara squirm in tandem, Meltzer subjects them--and us--to a plot that’s farfetched even by thriller standards. All his expertise about the details can’t keep us from seeing that “Dead Even” is, as a professor characterizes one of Jared’s law-school arguments, “imaginative, but sophomorically implausible.”

The in-your-face New York dialogue, especially from Sara’s prosecutorial mentor and would-be lover, Conrad Moore, and from the aptly named Guff, is more smart-alecky than funny. Guff’s hair “reminded Sara of a Brillo pad,” and that’s about as colorful as the description gets. The bullet-riddled climax is embarrassingly inept.

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There’s little evidence, either, that Meltzer has thought much about the law as a functioning part of society, as opposed to a collection of tricks. He is uncritical, for example, of Moore’s black-and-white, lock-'em-up view of offenders, even though Moore often acts like a self-righteous bully. The New York D.A.'s office is such a fine vantage point for a novel that we can’t help but mourn the opportunities “Dead Even” misses. It could have been a window on the world, not just a peep into a couple of pinstriped psyches.


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