By John Lescroart.
Dutton. 399 pp. $26.95
These are good times for fans of legal thrillers. Perhaps inspired by the success of Scott Turow and John Grisham, new talent keeps emerging. Young lawyers such as Justin Peacock and Robert Reuland have written fine novels. Michael Connelly has taken time away from his Harry Bosch series to give us three delightful books about the cynical but irresistible Los Angeles defense lawyer Mickey Haller. And the ex-bartender and rock singer John Lescroart has written a series of increasingly popular novels about the law, love and skullduggery in San Francisco.
Most of Lescroart’s novels have co-starred defense attorney Dismas Hardy and homicide detective Abe Glitsky, close friends who sometimes find themselves on opposite sides in the courtroom. In addition to legal fireworks, Lescroart does more than most lawyer-novelists with the domestic lives of his characters and with the visual, cultural and culinary joys of San Francisco. His 22nd novel, “Damage,” follows the pattern of the earlier ones, except that Hardy is relegated to a walk-on while Glitsky — now the city’s chief of detectives — works with the city’s new district attorney to stop a rich sociopath who embarks on a killing spree.
Wes Farrell, a defense lawyer, has been narrowly elected district attorney, and he’s not at all certain that he’s suited for the job. His uncertainties mount when a man named Roland Curtlee, after serving 10 years in prison for the rape and murder of a servant in his family’s home, has his conviction overturned and awaits a new trial. The problem for Farrell is that the killer’s parents, owners of the (fictional) San Francisco Courier, gave money and editorial support to his campaign. They soon arrive in Farrell’s office and demand that he take action to keep their dear boy from returning to prison. Farrell wants to do the right thing, but he’s aware of how much damage the Curtlees, their money and their hatchet-wielding political columnist can do him.
So is the judge who promptly grants bail to the young man. At that point, the blood starts to flow. A potential star witness against young Curtlee — another young woman he raped — is murdered. So is the wife of the foreman of the jury that convicted him. The freed convict even knocks on Glitsky’s door and seems to threaten his wife and child. Farrell and Glitsky have no doubt that Curtlee is the killer, but local judges, who must run for reelection and fear the Curtlees’ money and editorial power, refuse to put the young cutthroat back behind bars where he belongs. The new mayor, too, fears the publishers and pressures both the district attorney and the homicide chief to go easy.
Lescroart paints his story in broad strokes. Curtlee and his family’s Guatemalan bodyguard are monsters — we see them in action — and Curtlee’s parents, the publishers, are equally evil, although they pay others to do the wet work. Sometimes Lescroart’s plotting is a bit too casual. The police, for example, fail to have Curtlee followed long after it becomes clear that he’s out killing people. (By contrast, in Connelly’s recent “The Reversal,” when a killer is set loose pending retrial, the first thing the police do is follow him 24/7.) The Guatemalan blows a man’s head off and then takes the murder weapon back to the mansion and says he’ll dispose of it later — which makes no sense except as a favor to the police. Still, as the killers menace the story’s good people, a great deal of suspense ensues. In popular fiction, page-turning almost always trumps logic.
Lescroart touches on several topical issues. He’s making the case that the election of judges leads to the politicizing of justice. He makes chillingly clear how vulnerable law-abiding people can be to amoral killers. He offers dramatic examples of how gutter journalism can damage innocent lives. He even has a scene based on recent incidents around the country in which gun owners have affirmed their Second Amendment rights by turning up with unconcealed guns in public places — a Starbucks in this instance. Lescroart offers his own sardonic twist, however, when he has the two sociopaths mug a “paunchy, middle-aged, balding” gun-lover and steal the “big, semiautomatic with custom-made grips” that he sports in a holster on his hip.
The novel ends with a bang. Several bangs, in fact. A veritable Fourth of July of bangs. We mustn’t be too precise, endings being sacrosanct, so let’s just say that decency returns to San Francisco amid bloodcurdling violence and a good many surprises, as Lescroart again demonstrates his fiendish delight in keeping those pages turning.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.