Monday, June 16, 2008
A PATENT LIE
By Paul Goldstein
Doubleday. 293 pp. $24.95
Michael Seeley, the intellectual property lawyer at the center of this legal thriller, is down on his luck when we meet him. Seeley grew up in Buffalo, the son of a drunken lout who beat him and his younger brother, but he made his way to Harvard Law School and then to a fast-track firm in Manhattan. He won some celebrated cases, but drink brought him down. One day, blotto, he called a judge a pompous toad to his face and was nearly disbarred. He returned to Buffalo and embraced the joys of sobriety and a solo law practice. This novel starts when his younger brother, Leonard, whom he hasn't seen in nine years, arrives to make Seeley an offer he can't refuse.
Leonard is the chief medical officer for Vaxtek, a mid-size biotech company in San Francisco. Vaxtek, he explains, has developed and patented the most effective AIDS vaccine yet devised. But now his company is suing St. Gall, a giant Swiss drug producer, for infringing its patent. The trial starts in three weeks, billions of dollars are at stake, and Leonard wants his brother to be Vaxtek's lead lawyer. Seeley asks the obvious question: Why, at this late date, don't you have a lawyer? He died, his brother says. How? "He threw himself in front of a train." At that point, veteran thriller fans will suspect that Seeley risks leaving more than his heart in San Francisco if he takes this case, which of course he does.
Seeley is greeted by suspicion and hostility at Vaxtek, and he begins to fear there is something profoundly wrong about the case. He distrusts his star witness, the Vaxtek scientist who claims to have invented the vaccine. When the trial begins, Seeley is pitted against a canny old lawyer named Emil Thorpe as well as a glamorous but tough-minded judge, Ellen Farnsworth. The author, Paul Goldstein, is a professor at Stanford Law School and an authority on intellectual property law, and among the novel's pleasures are his insights into lawyers and the games they play.
Here, for example, he reflects on the sexy judge: "Federal judges are usually smarter and more able than most of the lawyers who come before them and, with their lifetime tenure, possess a detachment not unlike the composure of a beautiful woman who knows the effect that her good looks have on men. Judge Farnsworth had both." Elsewhere, the sly old lawyer Thorpe, who adopts a melancholy mien in court, lightens up for a moment, whereupon: "Having now seen the phantom of a smile from this austere, sorrowful man, the jurors would work to please him if that was the price to see him smile once more."
Goldstein often takes the action outside the courtroom. Seeley embarks upon an affair with a comely Chinese scientist who is a key figure in the case. She takes him to a restaurant overlooking the Pacific where they feast on "a heaped pile of crisp-battered Pacific oysters, each as fat as a baby's fist." He has a less pleasant lunch with Thorpe, the opposition lawyer, whom Seeley suspects is part of a shadowy collusion that can lead to a massive miscarriage of justice. Thorpe warns him: "You have also mistaken San Francisco's surface charms for its substance. This city can be a very dangerous place for lawyers who let their ideals get in the way of their pragmatism." Seeley, who fears a plot is afoot that would raise the price of the AIDS vaccine and thus cause many thousands of deaths in Africa, replies that too many people don't understand "the profound evil that a lawyer can commit." He has not forgotten the lawyer who supposedly stepped in front of a train, and he must wonder about his own safety if he persists in seeking the truth.
This is a smart, challenging novel, closer to Scott Turow's work than John Grisham's. The author tries to make things clear, but the complexities of patent law and of the conspiracy at the heart of the lawsuit will be more readily grasped by lawyers than by the rest of us. Still, the lay reader may well be swept along by the plot and graceful writing even if he or she doesn't understand every legal point.
I have one stylistic complaint. Goldstein has a habit of telegraphing his punches when he introduces characters. Leonard's first words when the brothers reunite are "I left a message with your girl," the "girl" in question being Seeley's elderly secretary. When Seeley meets Vaxtek's general counsel, the man is "beefy," with a "large pink face" and "sluggish" way of speaking, and he soon proves to be both obnoxious and homophobic. Seeley cross-examines a lawyer whose "austere, patrician bearing hid the meanness of his narrow eyes, the hawk's beak, and lips thin as wire." Next we're told that he is "a thoroughly unprincipled man" and that when he moves "a snowfall of dandruff" ensues.
Enough already! Even bad guys shampoo. Granted, there are countless offensive people in the world, but in fiction it's more interesting if their flaws unfold with more subtlety.