No less a personage than Alan Dershowitz called him "our best contemporary political novelist" (and added, importantly, "he also understands the political issues he writes about"). Now Richard North Patterson tackles another hot-button issue—death penalty convictions—after addressing gun control and late-term abortion in his two most recent bestsellers, Balance of Power and Protect and Defend. Conviction, published by Random House on February 1, had a first printing of 180,000 copies and is "being watched closely for a second," said publicity director Tom Perry. Pretty impressive, considering that Patterson hasn't done any promotion; as Perry put it, "The sales we've seen are pretty much just from the book being placed on shelves." No doubt those sales are about to mushroom, with Patterson's media kicking off this week—The CBS Early Show, a radio satellite tour, Court TV (how many authors show up there?) and local programs in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.