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A British teenager accuses his stepmother of conspiracy in his mother's murder in Tolkien's absorbing if uneven debut legal drama. The book pits 16-year-old Thomas Robinson against the beautiful, social-climbing Greta Grahame, who married Thomas's father, Sir Peter Robinson, a prominent politician, soon—very soon—after Lady Anne Robinson was killed. Thomas, who witnessed his mother's murder by two armed robbers, alleges that Greta was behind the killing. His courtroom testimony alternates with Greta's, and with a third-person narrative that at times contradicts both of the witnesses and keeps the reader in suspense. As Tolkien spins his tale, he explores the tense relationship between Greta, formerly Sir Peter's personal assistant and a working-class Manchester girl, and the well-born Lady Anne. The book is fast paced and crisply plotted, with Tolkien elegantly piecing together the different perspectives and introducing unexpected twists. Yet the characterizations are quite thin and stereotyped, and Tolkien relies on elaborate physical descriptions and heavy-handed, oft-repeated epithets ("green-eyed Greta" or a police officer's "sinister smile") to fill in the gaps. Readers may also be disappointed by the ending; after all those nail-biting twists, characters turn out to be more or less as they initially seemed, and tidy reconciliations strain credibility. Still, this is a promising first effort from Tolkien; one hopes that in the future he will be able to handle his characters as masterfully as he does the plot mechanics. (Jan.)
Forecast:As the grandson of the celebrated author of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien will attract more attention than most first-time British thriller writers published in the U.S. Three-city author tour; 75,000 first printing.