cover image Dark Lady

Dark Lady

Richard North Patterson. Alfred A Knopf Inc, $25.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45043-6

Patterson (Degree of Guilt; No Safe Place) has advanced considerably from his earlier, rather glib commercial thrillers. His world now seems much more somber, his characters more ridden with real-world angst; only a tendency to melodramatic flourishes and a certain narrative slickness suggest the pop writer he once was. His setting this time is Steelton, a grim Midwestern city on a lake that went into the dumps when its steel mills folded, and whose ambitious mayor wants to help revive it with an expensive sports stadium. The stadium seems to be good for the city and its suffering minority workers, but who really stands to gain? And what role does the shadowy mafia capo who runs the city's drug trade play in the proceedings? What about the plucky black mayoral candidate who sees the stadium as a rip-off by which the rich get richer? Against this highly detailed and well-observed background, Patterson introduces Stella Marz, chief of homicide in the local prosecutor's office, and a woman not without her own ambitions. She has personal demons to overcome: a wretchedly unhappy childhood, an unwise affair in her youth with a flashy lawyer who became the drug king's mouthpiece. Now the lawyer, and one of the top execs in the stadium company, have been found dead, in bizarre circumstances that suggest they both lived exotic secret lives. It is Stella's job, with the aid of a police chief whose motives she never quite grasps, to sort all this out. Patterson has devised a fiendishly complex plot combining financial shenanigans in high places, police corruption, political pressures and, ultimately threats, to Stella's sanity and life, all resolved in a High Noon-style windup that leaves Steelton and Stella only slightly better off than they began. Patterson's attempt to go beyond commercial formulas to create real, contemporary American drama is admirable, but somewhat undermined by, for example, a reader's realization that a character with an adorable small daughter cannot, in the nature of Patterson's fiction, be a villain. Literary Guild main selection; Random audio and large print editions. (Aug.)