'Degree' predictable, trashy, fascinating

January 11, 1993|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,Knight-Ridder News Service

Gasp! Incredibly beautiful and famous television newswoman kills famous author after attempted rape! Handsome big-time lawyer, father of newswoman's son and pretty famous himself, defends her! And that's just the beginning!

The contest for best trash novel of the year may be over, and this is only January. Richard North Patterson's "Degree of Guilt" contains average prose, a frequently telegraphed plot and some unintentionally hilarious dialogue.

It's also going to fly off the bookstore shelves.

Why? Because for all its manifest flaws, it's flamboyant and entertaining. You'll keep turning the pages.

The book opens just outside the San Francisco hotel suite of incredibly famous novelist Mark Ransom, a macho type whom TV reporter Mary Carelli has just shot and killed. Carelli tells police it was self-defense, that she'd gone to interview him and he tried to rape her.

She hires her ex-lover, Christopher Paget, a prominent San Francisco lawyer who is raising their son. The two knew each other in the old days in Washington, where they worked for and helped bring down some corrupt government officials in testimony before Congress.

The female prosecutor, who normally prosecutes rape cases, finds enough holes in Carelli's story that she (the prosecutor) becomes a tenacious law-enforcer, trying hard to nail the newswoman. Paget decides his best chance to derail the case is the preliminary hearing, where most of the courtroom action takes place before a municipal judge, also female, who's making the most of her time in the limelight. He also decides that he'll have to make Ransom's sleazy character the issue, proving that Carelli had reason to fear him.

A host of mostly one-dimensional characters pops in and out of the scenery, all helping fill in the blanks in the plot. They include the smart-as-a-whip teen-age son of Carelli-Paget; the beautiful Paget associate (with a troubled marriage and an increasing fondness for her boss); a private detective; Ransom's ex-wife and several other women whom he did very wrong. Yup, Ransom's a slimeball; but the question remains, did he really try to rape Carelli?

Paget's biggest problem defending Carelli is that she keeps a lot of the truth from him, and he keeps having to pry it loose. To say these two have secrets is the kind of understatement you won't find in this novel. The plot unfolds, baring secret after secret, revelation after revelation. You'll guess a lot of the developments long before they occur. The effect is sort of like watching a stripper: You're pretty sure you know what's underneath the clothing, but you keep watching anyway.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Degree of Guilt."

Author: Richard North Patterson.

Publisher: Knopf.

Length, price: 548 pages, $23.

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