Legal thriller works by vindicating the victim

January 24, 1993|By Ann G. Sjoerdsma

MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES.

Nancy Taylor Rosenberg.

Dutton.

362 pages. $21. Ex-cop Nancy Taylor Rosenberg's much talked-about "Mitigating Circumstances" has many flaws associated with first novels: too much exposition and statement of theme, too little development of relationships, a conflict too neatly resolved.

But it also has a saving grace. "Mitigating Circumstances," sold last year to TriStar Pictures for a six-figure movie deal with Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs") as director, is a genuine story, a puzzling, if not outright suspenseful "I-can't-wait-to-see-what-happens-next" story that is told with ease. It lacks the polished prose and intellectual finesse of Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent," a comparable legal thriller, but it still holds attention.

The story, one of sexual violation, female victimization and injustice, belongs to district attorney Lily Forrester. At 36, after eight years of courtroom warfare with revolving-door criminals, she has been promoted to chief of the Ventura County, Calif., Sex Crimes Division, a big step toward the judgeship that she covets.

An incest survivor living in a sexless marriage, Forrester, appealing for both her strength and her vulnerability, yearns for control and power. After she and her 13-year-old daughter Shana are raped, Forrester takes control, exacting a lawless revenge and setting in motion a chain of events, complicated by clever twists, that will lead to self-destruction or self-redemption.

That the criminal justice system, the streets, the cities and so-called "human nature" are out of control is a point made repeatedly -- too often -- by Ms. Rosenberg, 46, who spent about 10 years in law enforcement. She understands police procedure and legal process, especially the loopholes, and realistically delivers cynical policemen, grisly crime scenes and animalistic offenders.

Ms. Rosenberg's chief aim, though, is to vindicate victims. Through her redheaded protagonist, she unites all women in a sisterhood of victimization and seems at times to be exorcising personal demons. An intelligent, complex female character is among the rarest of thriller elements, and Ms. Rosenberg is to be congratulated.

Still, a strong current of misogyny also runs through the ironically titled "Mitigating Circumstances." Not only does the rapist indulge in extremely vile thoughts about women, but Forrester berates herself, obsessing about her age and her looks. Male characters, including her too-good-to-be-true attorney boyfriend, consistently speak the voice of reason and compassion, not Forrester.

The incest has damaged Forrester's self-concept, but must she be raped, victimized again, before she can become a healthy, integrated person? Are women who refuse to take control and exercise power doomed to be victims? Must women do violence in order to prevent male abuse from destroying them?

Ms. Rosenberg raises many more questions about the balance of power between the sexes than she chooses to answer. She simply tells the truth of her story. For what it is, not what it could be, it works.

Ms. Sjoerdsma is a Baltimore attorney and writer.

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