There are a very few authors whose books I'll pick up without thinking twice. The incredible John D. MacDonald is one, Lawrence Block is another. And to these two masters, you can now add a third: Richard North Patterson, a lawyer-turned-writer whose combination of chilling legal drama, multi-layered plots, and very human protagonists has propelled his previous ten novels to the bestseller lists...not to mention my bookshelf.
In "Dark Lady", Patterson gives us the story of Stella Marz, whom fans will remember as the prosecution attorney in "Silent Witness". Six years have passed since Stella lost the Sam Robb case, six years in which she's risen to the post of Assistant County Prosecutor in Steelton. Her reputation for tenaciousness in murder trials has earned her the nickname "Dark Lady" - and now, after six years of putting the city's worst behind bars, she's looking to cap her career by becoming the first elected woman County Prosecutor.
Naturally, this isn't going to be easy - Steelton is a city divided by racial prejudice and strife, and Stella's boss, Arthur Bright, is mired in a mayoral race against incumbent Tom Krajek. Krajek's election platform is the new Steelton baseball stadium, Steelton 2000, which he promises will bring more jobs and more income to Steelton's deprived families; Bright, on the other hand, derides the project as a colossal waste of public money. The political calculus is clear: if Bright wins, his seat becomes empty, leaving Stella and her rival, Charles Sloan, the other Assistant County Prosecutor, vying for his job.
If Patterson had stopped right here, he would have had a winner; a situation as flammable as this one is rife with possibilities for mischief. But it needs a catalyst before it explodes...and Patterson provides that in the form of Jack Novak, Steelton's most celebrated drug lawyer and Stella's ex-lover, who is found hanging from a doorway dressed in women's underwear. Add to that the mysterious death by overdose of Tommy Fielding, an employee at Steelton 2000, and Stella's quickly got her hands full with inter-office politics, two murders, and her own inner demons.
As she begins to investigate Novak's death, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not kosher - the dead lawyer has links with Steelton's underworld, and with crooked cops in Steelton's police force. At the same time, her investigation into Fielding's death uncovers some strange doings at Steelton 2000, irregularities which Bright and Sloan push her to uncover in the hope that it will smear Krajek's electoral campaign. And as Stella delves deeper, she finds that the Jack Novak she knew had some deep, dark secrets - secrets that someone is willing to kill for...
This is Patterson at his finest - weaving a web of deceit, lies and hidden motives, he has created a story which successfully brings together the worlds of high finance, campaign politics and underworld blackmail. His portrait of Stella Marz is intricately drawn - she is, at different times, a Polish woman who feels out-of-place in a city of immigrants, an ambitious and dedicated lawyer, an affectionate daughter, a lover, and a woman haunted by the mistakes she's made in the past. Hidden motives run deep throughout "Dark Lady" - politics and greed are good bedfellows - and Patterson is adept at hiding them and then making the reader aware of them at the appropriate time.
Patterson's descriptions of the city of Steelton are also picture-perfect; he accurately conveys the sense of a city gone to seed, tired of its warring sides, and eager for new hope in the form of Steelton 2000. Against its grimy background, Stella's struggle for the truth becomes ever more important, if only to prove that, even in Steelton, the dead have a right to justice. And so, regardless of whether you're already a Patterson fan or not, I'd suggest you pick up "Dark Lady" - it's a wonderful book, and one which will keep you up well past bedtime. Much recommended!This article was first published on 06 Nov 2000.