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Book Reviews

In Her Defense: A Novel

by Stephen Horn

HarperCollins, 400 pp., $25

"It was a rainy night in the city that keeps its secrets." Okay, this isn't the opening sentence of this legal thriller from first-time author Stephen Horn, but it could be. Mr. Horn has decided to embrace the genre wholeheartedly -- never mind trying to deconstruct, reconstruct, or in any other way reshape the mold. The author, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department's civil rights division, knows his legal turf and has obviously studied the literary landscape of the private eye/legal thriller.

His hero is (can you guess?) a cynical, washed-up former rising star on the Washington, D.C., legal scene who threw it all away: a brilliant career in his father-in-law's prestigious firm and a marriage to a beautiful and brilliant woman. He is currently reduced to court appointments of two-bit crooks in the bowels of the D.C. courthouse. He's a haunted man who walks the shiny, wet streets of the district (well, the book doesn't specify that they're shiny and wet, but you just know that they are) until the early morning hours just so he can exhaust himself enough to catch a couple of hours of tortured sleep. Why, you ask? 'Cause he's a man who likes to live on the edge, that's why! Where's the edge in success and financial stability?

Within the first few pages, we learn that the fabulously beautiful ("I could say for sure that her eyes were a gray green that Jaguar used to call tungsten") and fabulously wealthy Ashley Bronson is accused of murdering the former secretary of commerce. In a barely plausible leap of literary faith, we are asked to believe that Ms. Bronson ditches her high-powered representation for the darkly haunted, deeply masculine Frank O'Connell on the basis of the macho, no-bullshit posturing he displays in the jail cell his two-bit, court-appointed client happens to be sharing with the supernova, glamourpuss defendant. Well, okay. If you buy into that premise, you can pretty much go along with the rest of the ride.

The ride is predictable: A hard-bitten PI discovers the prosecution's airtight case ain't all it appears to be, our breathtakingly beautiful defendant has a few secrets of her own, and our bleary-eyed defense attorney is falling for the dame. The predictability isn't the weakness of the book; it's the point. For fans of legal thrillers who have been disappointed with the techno-wonders that have infiltrated some of the recent offerings, this back-to-basics offering is a most welcome antidote.

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In Her Defense: A Novel, In Her Defense: Stephen Horn

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