TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD

By Paul Levine

Bantam. 282 pp. $17.95

Forget the book-jacket comparison to "Presumed Innocent." Scott Turow cares about character as much as suspense: His lawyers are sufficiently complex and well realized that his mystery novels are -- first and foremost -- novels. But first novelist Paul Levine means to work squarely within the mystery genre. "To Speak for the Dead" mixes good writing and overwriting, dead-on courtroom scenes and self-conscious dialogue, superficial characters, taut observations and some truly nasty surprises. The result is bracing enough to leave mystery devotees wanting more, and the less committed expecting better books to come.

This book starts nicely. A young resident in surgery is fresh from treating victims of 72 straight hours of carnage, the fallout from Miami's notorious Liberty City riots. Aimlessly, Roger Salisbury wanders into a blue-collar strip joint and is instantly taken with a fresh-faced stripper. A chump, she thinks, always falling in love. He asks her out.

The story fast-forwards. Hero Jake Lassiter is defending a successful surgeon in a wrongful death action brought by the beautiful young widow of a wealthy man in his mid-fifties. The question is whether the surgeon's hand slipped, piercing the man's aorta. The surgeon is Roger Salisbury. The widow -- as the reader and Lassiter learn shortly after he gains a defense verdict -- is Salisbury's ex-stripper girlfriend.

This surprise drives the story. The dead man's daughter, Susan Corrigan, shows Lassiter a videotape of stepmother Melanie engaged in group sex with her husband, the late Philip Corrigan, a Cuban karate fanatic -- and Roger Salisbury. Was the lawsuit a put-on? Did Roger and Melanie, as Susan believes, murder Philip? Did Roger act alone -- or did Melanie somehow kill Philip and then try to blame Roger? Most of all, what is Lassiter to make of his client: Is Roger a victim of sex, or has sexual obsession made him a psychopath?

Levine does a lot with a limited cast of suspects, and what seems like a simple idea. Lassiter's search for the true Roger Salisbury leads him to a romance with Susan, two bizarre killings, a murder trial, grave-robbing and the discovery of a three-year-old homicide. The climax is genuinely chilling and, in its abruptness, just right.

But getting there is sometimes less fun than it sounds. Part of the problem is Lassiter. Levine gives him an everyman voice: superficially cynical but a secret idealist, bungalow owner, beer aficionado, ex-football player, former public defender, righter of wrongs and fount of populist insight. In short, Travis McGee with trial experience. (I should admit to a prejudice here: I grew so weary of John D. MacDonald's macho-sentimental houseboat philosopher that Lord Peter Wimsey began to seem like a good idea. Those who miss McGee may view Lassiter more fondly -- if not as the Second Coming, at least as a second cousin.)

These standard-issue attributes keep the reader from experiencing Lassiter as a real person. Lassiter's romance with Susan Corrigan rings false: They meet angry, fall in love and embark on a stock-company war of the sexes. She's tough but open; he's afraid to express feeling; sex seems like what's left. One wishes for depth, joy or just genuine surprise. Even Salisbury is somewhat of a letdown; an enigma should create more interest. And some of the supporting cast work so hard at being characters that they threaten to become caricatures. (Why is it, in this kind of novel, that rich people are either tailors' dummies or into kinky sex?)

Even so, Lassiter as eye of the novel is hardly a dead loss. His trial work has real bite and authority, and Lassiter's thoughts convey -- moment by moment -- the craft, intuition, surprise, helplessness, farce, triumph and embarrassment of the real thing. Lassiter may not have the lonely depth of Lew Archer or the wit of Philip Marlowe, but he's good at his job and fun when he does it.

The law brings Lassiter to life and gives "To Speak for the Dead" a charge. The obsessive career prosecutor Socolow may be a type, but he's a real type. Retired coroner Charlie Riggs, who serves as Lassiter's best friend, brings the role a certain humanity and a catalogue of fascinating techniques for doing people in. And Levine's sardonic portrait of a couple of trial judges will amuse any lawyer who has ever wished that the Court of Appeals paid house calls.

The best news is that Levine can write: The opening paragraph gives the smells, sounds and feel of the Liberty City riot, and the reader is sucked in. Levine sometimes uses a word too many, but this is curable -- some writers never find the words. Levine can, and the next time out he may put them (and Jake Lassiter) all together.

The reviewer, a San Francisco lawyer, is the author of four novels, including "Private Screening" and the Edgar-winning "The Lasko Tangent."