JUST REVENGE

By Alan Dershowitz

Warner. 322 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Jonathan Groner

Many law professors are fond of using lengthy and fascinating hypothetical problems to focus their students' attention on complicated issues. These can be an excellent teaching technique: Mr. A walked into the highway, where he was hit by Mr. B's truck, and so it goes. Although hypotheticals have their place in academia, they understandably tend to possess little literary value, if any. Unfortunately, what the distinguished Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has given us in Just Revenge, his second novel, is not much more than a law-school hypothetical writ large.

The premise is straightforward. Max Menuchen, an aging Jewish professor of Bible studies whose family was wiped out by Lithuanian militiamen in the Holocaust, accidentally comes across the chief perpetrator of the atrocity, also a man in his seventies, in present-day Massachusetts. Revenge, lurking in Menuchen's mind for decades, becomes an obsession for him; yet he concludes that simply killing Marcelus Prandus would not suffice, since Prandus is already terminally ill with pancreatic cancer. Working with an accomplice, Menuchen contrives an ingenious form of retribution that is far crueler than mere murder. After Menuchen is predictably arrested and tried for his actions, he turns to Abe Ringel, a brilliant, wisecracking Harvard professor of criminal law who is, of course, a clone of Alan Dershowitz.

Dershowitz dedicates this book to the members of his family who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, people who killed Jews wantonly like the fictitious Marcelus Prandus, then disappeared quietly into society and were never forced to make an accounting for their crimes. He asks the large questions: What can individuals do to bring about justice when the social contract has failed them? Are there circumstances in which it is moral to make innocent people suffer? Does the thirst for revenge corrupt the one who harbors it? Can the American legal system cope with the Holocaust?

As a courtroom drama, Just Revenge is not bad. Dershowitz knows how to deliver a summation to a jury, and, not surprisingly, so does Ringel. As a serious exploration of the human heart and of the larger moral questions of justice and revenge, though, the book suffers from the worst type of clunkiness. Dershowitz's characters, especially his women, have about as much depth as the "Mr. A" and "Mr. B" of the law schools. They are little more than stick figures around whom the author has constructed a morality play.

The method of narration is grating, to say the least. A skillful novelist knows how to show, rather than to tell. A novelist builds characters by placing them in situations and having them act in a convincing manner. That is elementary. Instead, Dershowitz writes passages like: "Max realized that he was treating his festering wounds with the powerful and dangerous medicine of revenge." I would be far more persuaded of this fact if I were permitted to see Max in action, to have some access to his inner thoughts, and then to reason it out for myself.

Something as obvious as the chapter titles serves as another illustration. We hardly need to be told in advance that a chapter will deal with "Finding the Body" or "Max's Return." Just write the chapter and have it happen. Where were the editors? And Dershowitz's foreshadowing techniques wouldn't pass muster in a 10th-grade English course. "That evening Max was to learn something that resolved all of his doubts in favor of even more deadly action." At another point: "Yet even he could not have foreseen that she would become so essential in plotting -- and implementing -- his revenge against the dying Marcelus Prandus." Skip all that and just show it happening.

Dershowitz had admirable motivations in writing this book. He knows that the horrors of the Holocaust must not be forgotten. He also knows that the primal impulse of revenge must be contained in a civilized society. (With very few exceptions, Jews did not exercise private justice against Nazis in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and it is to Dershowitz's credit that he is able to imagine a Jew, indeed a bookish Jew, doing just that.) But Just Revenge simply has too much of the classroom about it to come together as a novel.

Jonathan Groner is editor-at-large of Legal Times and editor of legaltimes.com.