cover image The Best Defense

The Best Defense

Ellis Cose. HarperCollins Publishers, $24 (259pp) ISBN 978-0-06-017496-5

Having written several well-received nonfiction books on American race relations and the workplace (among them Color-Blind and The Rage of a Privileged Class), journalist Cose puts a human face on the subject of affirmative action in this observant, witty but sometimes too cerebral fiction debut, a provocative legal thriller. Fifty-four-year-old computer nerd John Wisocki has been downsized from his position at the computer conglomerate Infotect. Distraught, slightly drunk and already something of a bumbler, Wisocki attempts to commit suicide but ends up shooting and killing Francisco Garcia, the Latino man who is to replace him. By the time the press gets hold of the story, the accident is dubbed New York's first ""affirmative action murder."" As the case becomes a referendum on that policy, battle lines are quickly drawn between those who see Wisocki as a ""raging bigot"" and others who view him as a ""hapless victim."" Cose elaborates upon the premise by introducing a romance between Wisocki's defense attorney, African American, Harvard-educated Felicia Fontaine, and Puerto Rican assistant DA Mario Santiago, former lovers who still have eyes for each other. A Harlem demagogue, the Rev. Lester Hawkins, is also falling for Felicia as personal and political interests clash. Cose's dialogue is sometimes stiff, and his plotting skills are similarly standard-issue. He relies almost entirely on topical complexities to give his novel pizzazz: the alleged bigot is married to an Asian woman, upper-class Fontaine mentors a ghetto girl; Mario's wife has a Spanish name but is really Latvian-Filipina. On the other hand, Cose demonstrates a first-rate knowledge of the law and how the New York legal system works. He has produced an intelligent novel on a timely theme, but some may wish that he had not played it quite so safe and had illuminated more complex issues of race relations. One hopes to encounter Felicia and Mario in another book, where Cose might be a bit more daring. Agent, Michael Congdon; editor, Carolyn Marion. (Sept.)