BOOK REVIEW / Date-murder and hot tapes from the shrink: Degree of Guilt - Richard North Patterson Hutchinson, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
RICHARD North Patterson is a partner in McCutcheon, Doyle, Brown & Emerson, engagingly described in the handout as 'one of the stuffier San Francisco law firms'. (No doubt his colleagues would have preferred 'one of the more august', or even 'best'). Like Presumed Innocent, then, this is a lawyer's courtroom drama. Unlike Scott Turow's blockbuster, however, it starts from a premise: that the law is unfairly weighted against the victim in cases of violence against women, particularly sexual violence, because the 'private' nature of the crime - her word against his, no witnesses - makes it difficult to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not much to argue with there, so what was so hot about this particular novel that it had publishers bidding for it sight unseen, and is now being published simultaneously in nine countries - no small feat of logistics when there are translations involved? The answer is those two causes celebres that got America in such a lather at the back end of 1991, the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill Senate hearings and the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. In both cases the female accusers got the fuzzy end of the lollipop, as Marilyn Monroe put it. A fat blockbuster that addressed the issue must have seemed like a sure thing.

The victim of sexual violence here is Mary Carelli, a hard-nosed television journalist. Her abuser is 'America's most eminent novelist', a larger-than-life Mailerish character called Mark Ransom. The twist is that he's also her victim; she had a gun in her bag, and shot him, and her defence is self-defence. It doesn't really matter, but the actual courtroom drama is not a trial at all, but a hearing to establish Probable Cause, ie whether there is enough evidence against the prospective defendant to send her to trial for murder.

Ransom had a psychosexual obsession with a Monroeish actress called Laura Chase, who killed herself 30 years ago after an affair with a JFK-style presidential candidate called James Colt. From Chase's recently dead psychiatrist-to-the-stars, Ransom has got hold of therapy-session tapes which reveal that Colt forced Chase into perverted sex with political cronies; that Chase had a lesbian affair with a Jane Fonda-type actress called Lindsay Caldwell, then only 19, now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood; and, crucially, that Mary Carelli was also a patient of the same shrink.

It is never satisfactorily explained why Mary, whose beat seems to be Boston, Washington and New York, should feel it necessary to consult an expensive Beverly Hills psychiatrist. But her tapes reveal secrets that could ruin not only her career but that of her lawyer, Christopher Paget; the two of them perjured themselves in the same sensational anti-corruption Senate hearings 15 years before, among the less expected upshots of which was a son, Carlo. So everybody has a lot to lose, blackmail is in the air, and none of these tapes can possibly see the light of day.

Talk about hidden agendas] All this takes us a long way from the did-he-or-didn't-he simplicity (relatively speaking) of your average rape case, or even your average high-

profile date-rape case. The question becomes not so much whether the victim was 'asking for it' as whether she is entitled to exact revenge and get away with it. Marnie Sharpe, the prosecutor, is convinced that Carelli's talk of rape is just a smokescreen for murder pure and simple, and certainly Carelli's testimony, like her pantyhose (was there ever a more mimsy word than 'pantyhose'?), is so full of self-inflicted holes that not even her own lawyer believes her. He, after all, knows better than anyone that she's capable of lying under oath.

So is it any good? As with most fat American blockbusters, the answer has to be yes and no. The courtroom stuff, presided over by the crabby-but-fair Judge Caroline Masters, is pretty gripping, and Patterson keeps things moving, by and large avoiding the pitfall of letting issues take over completely from character. But then you'd have to be a genius to screw up a courtroom scene with this lot involved.

The bits in between are easy to skip, though - the extensive sub- plot involving Paget's assistant, her dismal marriage and whether or not she's going to end up in bed with the boss did nothing for me, and neither did Carlo's long redemption- through-basketball scene at the end. Ransom's kinks were interesting, but his psychopathology was so far beyond that of the 'average' rapist that you might as well have put Hannibal Lecter on the stand for all the use he is as an exemplar. So the book doesn't even address its own agenda particularly well. Perhaps they'll like it better in the other eight countries.