CONVICTIONS

My Journey From the Convent to the Courtroom

By Arlene Violet with Suda J. Prohaska

Random House. 209 pp. $17.95

Her parents named her Arlene; as a Sister of Mercy she renamed herself Maria Crucis (Mary of the Cross); but the people of Rhode Island call her Attila the Nun. They elected her their attorney general a few years ago, and though she served only one two-year term, she managed to give the state's establishment a good shaking. In this entertaining autobiography, she tells how she baited bishops and judges alike.

It will come as no surprise to readers of Geoffrey Wolff's wicked novel "Providence" that the city takes -- how shall we put it? -- a surprisingly bright view of civic corruption. Despite being born there, Arlene Violet always chafed at the kickbacks and palm-greasing. Of French-Catholic ancestry, she grew up convinced that her life "carried a special mark upon it." Though she didn't lack for dates, including "gorgeous" ones, she acted upon her conviction by joining the Sisters of Mercy.

Touched by '60s radicalism, she worked as a community organizer in the ghetto and became one of the first nuns to live outside the convent. Injustice so provoked her that she broached the idea of studying law with her mother superior. The order agreed, and Violet went back to school, where she flourished on material and methods that many another aspirant has found dry and daunting.

But she was never a moonbeam radical. What moved her most were the outrages perpetrated on innocent people, like the old ghetto woman who was mugged and consigned to a nursing home for the rest of her life with a broken hip. Her teen-age assailant got a light sentence. "I never forgot that," Violet writes. "When I became attorney general, I remembered my elderly friend. My first piece of legislation had her name on it. I got a law passed allowing people's entire record, including the tab they had run as juvenile offenders, to be weighed against them when they committed crimes as adults. I felt both of us had been sprung from the nursing home."

She clerked for a judge after graduation and didn't flinch from drafting an opinion to liberalize the state's divorce law. (On abortion she is now pro-choice.) She took a job as head of the attorney general's consumer division, where her cleverness trapped a husband and wife who had defrauded senior citizens to whom they sold insurance. The wife claimed to have a photographic memory and invoked it to deny that her husband ever made the promise of dividends on which the state's case turned. Clutching a piece of paper, Violet set up the wife with a seemingly innocuous challenge: "You've been sitting in this courtroom for three days now," she began. "And since you have a photographic memory, how many lights are in the chandelier above your head?"

"Then I dropped the paper and stooped to pick it up. Her head shot upward, eyes rotated to the ceiling to count the lights. 'Seven,' she said.

"That was all the members of the jury needed to see. They returned a guilty verdict."

She led the picketing of a Catholic day-care center in nearby Fall River, Mass., that the local bishop was trying to close. He threatened to have her excommunicated, then backed down when public opinion turned against him. She ran once for attorney general and lost. After her second campaign -- as a law-and-order Republican with street smarts -- was underway, her bishop ordered her to withdraw. She refused and left the order under duress. This time she won, unseating a longtime Democratic incumbent.

Reading between the lines, one senses that Attorney General Violet might have hurt her own cause by exuding that haughty, otherworldly moralism peculiar to nuns. She did attack organized crime successfully, almost eliminating, in her nice phrase, "the Mob's middle management in Rhode Island." She tangled with formidable, flashy Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in her (unsuccessful) retrial of Claus von Bu low for attempted murder of his wealthy wife. She appeared on "60 Minutes." But her upheaval of the plea-bargaining system angered the Rhode Island criminal bar so much that many of them supported her opponent in the 1986 election, which she lost.

Arlene Violet has a sense of humor about herself but offers no apologies for the way she ran the attorney general's office. She seems to have made a difference in Rhode Island during her brief tenure and may have written this autobiography to spark a comeback. Regardless, it is a lively and unusual book -- not to mention a warning against crossing a prosecutor who seemingly musters God on her side.

The reviewer is a Washington attorney who was taught by the Sisters of Mercy through the eighth grade.