One quality Sidney Sheldon has demonstrated in his previous novels (including "Bloodline," "A Stranger in the Mirror" and "The Other Side of Midnight") is the ability to keep readers wondering what will happen next and turning pages rapidly to find out. This quality is as strong as ever in "Rage of Angels" and will certainly make the book a best seller. It is also entertaining and modestly informative about the legal profession and organized crime, which are Sheldon's basic subjects. If there were a few real people in the book, it could be recommended without reservation.
What it has instead are Jennifer Parker, a determined young attorney who comes to Manhattan from her small town of Kelso, Wash., to seek her fortune, and the three men who dominate and distort the patterns of her life:
Michael Moretti, brilliant, ruthless and (naturally) ambitious heir-apparent to a Mafia throne. Moretti wants to get Jennifer -- as a woman, to be sure, but also as a lawyer, and this means trouble in his tradition-bound, sexist line of business.
Robert Di Silva, brillant, ruthless and (naturally) ambitious New York prosecuting attorney who has his eye on higher office. Di Silva wants to get Jennifer not as a woman or a lawyer but as a victim -- first of all because (by an honest mistake that looks like something much worse) she allowed Moretti to escape from his clutches while she was a very junior employe in his office. He also wants to get her, later, because she becomes a very brilliant defense attorney and keeps depriving him of victims and the accompanying headlines.
Adam Warner, a brilliant, not particularly ruthless and painfully honorable partner in a major Manhattan law firm, who wants to get Jennifer as his wife (or reasonable facsimile) -- but not enough to dispose of the wife he already has, or to jeopardize his chances of being elected president of the United States.
With a cast of characters like this, some colorful minor figures (including criminals, a private investigator and a wealth of attorneys), plenty of anecdotal material about law and organized crime, a complicated, nicely twisted plot and a climactic ending high-lighted by a spectacular assassination attempt, Sheldon offers the reader full value for the money (as such things go these days).
It may be that Sheldon has trouble handling a woman as his central character, although Jennifer is carefully observed from the outside, and she is certainly given some interesting things to do. She builds a career under serious handicaps after being driven in disgrace from Di Silva's office and nearly disbarred. She is shown conducting brilliant defenses in some very tricky cases. She becomes a single parent (Adam is honorable, but he is, after all, only human) and raises her son privately without telling the father about it. She is entangled (unwillingly at first but then wholeheartedly because she has fallen in love again) in the grimy labyrinths of La Cosa Nostra.
These are certainly enough assignments for the heroine of a 500-page novel, and Jennifer handles them all with distinction. She is bright, pretty, resourceful, dedicated, frequently in trouble and variously clever and interesting in her ways of getting out of it, but somehow she never quite comes to life on the page. Perhaps it is because (like Adam) she is just a shade too good to be true.
Moretti and Di Silva, on the other hand, are too bad to be true -- though their counterparts certainly exist in real life and probably do the kinds of things they do in "Rage of Angels." When Sheldon says that Di Silva "went through life as though he was five minutes late for an appointment," he has characterized a certain kind of ruthless efficiency succinctly, colorfully and memorably. But until he has shown the character doing a few things that aren't ruthlessly efficient, he has produced only a clever cartoon.
There is ample evidence of careful research in the little nuggets of folklore about the legal and criminal professions that are distributed neatly throughout the book. Such points as the laws of evidence and the statute of limitations are introduced plausibly, explained lucidly and unobtrusively, and used with fine craftsmanship to advance the plot.
Craftsmanship is the keynote, as a matter of fact, in this novel that ticks along like an intricate, beautifully designed piece of clockwork, full of characters and incidents that are usually interesting even if they are slightly unreal. "Rage of Angels" will be by no means the worst novel on the best-seller lists in the weeks ahead, but one must hope that it will not be the best.