Actual Innocence

Barry Siegel, Author
Barry Siegel, Author Ballantine Books $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-345-41309-3
Reviewed on: 10/04/1999
Release date: 10/01/1999
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-0-7871-2183-9
Mass Market Paperbound - 309 pages - 978-0-345-41310-9
Analog Audio Cassette - 978-1-59040-255-9
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Despite its sleepy appearance, the tiny hamlet of El Nido, Calif., harbors terrible secrets. As Siegel's second thriller featuring attorney Greg Monarch (after The Perfect Witness) begins, El Nido resident Sarah Trant has been sitting on death row for five years, convicted by a jury of townsfolk on the basis of very shaky evidence. Monarch, who lives in the nearby town of La Graciosa and was formerly Trant's lover, agrees to handle her appeal, though he knows Trant has a history of mental instability. Upon arriving in El Nido, he gets a frosty reception. The district attorney won't help with even the most basic information, the sheriff is downright hostile and Trant's former attorney refuses to take his calls. Monarch pushes on, eventually discovering aspects of the case that were covered up the first time around. These include the fact that the testimony clinching Trant's conviction--a dying declaration from the victim identifying Trant as the killer--is patently false; the dying man's throat was cut all the way to the spine. Monarch figures the key to the case is the victim, Brewster Tomaz, an elderly geologist who had been working for an oil company that wanted to build a huge health spa on its now dry fields. Trant, who vehemently opposed the health spa plan, had clashed with Tomaz several times in the past, but so had many others, including people with knowledge of one of El Nido's even bigger secrets. Though some of the plot turns are predictable, Siegel beautifully captures the flavor of scandal in a small community--the knowing looks, the awkward silences, the amateur attempts at coverup. The novel ends, appropriately, not with big-city drama, but with a quiet, small-town America nod-nod-wink-wink deal. (Nov.)
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