Lawyer, priest, doctor, policeman

Mysteries and Thrillers

April 25, 2004|By Dick Adler | Dick Adler,Chicago Tribune

Chicago lawyer and political insider David Ellis certainly knows how to plot up a storm. As he did in Line of Vision (which won him an Edgar for best first mystery) and Life Sentence, he powers his latest legal thriller, Jury of One (Putnam Publishing Group, 384 pages, $24.95), with a narrative engine that smashes through the barriers of coincidence and credulity, leaving readers breathless at the author's audacity.

Not only is Shelly Trotter -- a 35-year-old lawyer working for a nonprofit firm as an advocate for children in trouble -- the daughter of the current, conservative governor of the novel's unspecified state, but she also turns out to be the birth mother of a 17-year-old boy charged with killing a police officer. That Ellis can make both of these large pieces of emotional baggage work inside an already complicated story is a tribute to his cleverness and compassion.

Trotter's only chance of saving the boy she put up for adoption as a baby after she was raped at 17 is to take on his defense herself -- to prove he was part of a federal sting operation against drug-dealing cops. But there are several problems: Trotter has never worked an adult criminal trial, and her father, who used up lots of political points covering up the rape and adoption, is afraid that escaping ghosts might haunt his political present.

As expected from past Ellis performances, there is a beautifully sustained trial sequence, with several surprises. But what really makes his third book so impressive are the human challenges he sets up and conquers.

One of the great pleasures in a mystery reviewer's life is watching a promising series take root and blossom into something strong and unusual. Out of the Deep I Cry (Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's, 336 pages, $23.95), Julia Spencer-Fleming's third book about the Rev. Clare Fergusson, an Episcopal priest (and former Army helicopter pilot) in the small town of Millers Kill in upstate New York, is a perfect example: Worries about how the author would handle the building romance between Fergusson and Russ van Alstyne, the town's married sheriff, are pushed aside by a growing awareness of the depth of each character's commitment to his or her work, and we sense that it would take an emotional earthquake of some sort to endanger that.

Fergusson's clerical abilities are also strengthened in her latest outing, as various choices between caring for people in peril and church traditions of property and history are made carefully. The season of Lent, with its emphasis on humanity beginning and ending as ashes, is particularly appropriate. And there's a wonderfully detailed plot that takes the town of Millers Kill gradually back through the years to unveil the reasons for a current crime.

There are overtones of Michael Crichton (a mysterious disease), Stephen King (possible alien or diabolic intervention), even John Grisham (a young professional under pressure in a small Southern city) in Dr. Frank Huyler's debut thriller, The Laws of Invisible Things (Holt, 301 pages, $25). But he resists every chance to over-hype his gripping story. And Huyler, an emergency physician, writes such subtly forceful prose -- as shown in his 1999 book of short stories, The Blood of Strangers -- that his novel quickly takes on a cool, uniquely powerful sense of dread.

Dr. Michael Grant, 35, has taken a job as partner and heir apparent to an elderly physician in a North Carolina city where he hopes to start a new life after his divorce from another, more ambitious doctor. The practice of medicine has always been a problem for Grant, who seems to lack compassion: "Even the great struggles of his patients, the men and women whose lot he watched, felt distant, their real sufferings and deep fears and occasional pure bolts of joy as detached as a kaleidoscope or a freak show at a country fair."

When a baby dies unexpectedly of a viral infection, Grant begins to feel guilty about not paying her illness enough attention. The child's grandfather, a minister, questions Grant about her treatment but seems to forgive the doctor. Grant agrees to examine the minister's son, the father of the dead girl, and finds traces of a strange and possibly rare new disease in the man's eyes and throat. Then Grant becomes ill with the same symptoms: Huyler's description of his emergency treatment is coldly honest and frightening.

As Grant recovers, he and the daughter of his sharply drawn medical partner (a man who is all head and very little heart) try to track down the truth about the disease. Is it indeed a medical breakthrough? Or does it have moral and religious roots, as the minister seems to believe? In lesser hands, the book's ending could easily have turned into just a blast of weird science or heavy-handed symbolism. But Huyler's wisdom and restraint make it something more original.

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