The Barnes & Noble Review
Two very different figures dominate the landscape of Richard North Patterson's latest and grimmest political/legal thriller, Dark Lady. One is Stella Marz, an ambitious, driven deputy prosecutor with a troubled past, an unsatisfactory personal life, and nascent political aspirations. The other itself virtually a character in the novel is the fictional city of Steelton, an emblematic American community with a full complement of contemporary social ills: crime, drug abuse, racial tensions, economic difficulties, and deep-seated, endemic corruption.
As the novel opens, Steelton is in the midst of an election year. Stella, the Dark Lady of the title, is hoping to use her pristine professional record she has not lost a case in more than six years to transform herself into a viable candidate for chief prosecutor of Erie County. To succeed to become the first female prosecutor in the county's history she must secure the support of current Chief Prosecutor Arthur Bright, who is himself hoping to become the first black mayor in the city's history, and who is waging an uphill campaign against a solidly entrenched incumbent, Thomas Krajek.
The central issue of the mayoral campaign the issue around which virtually everything that happens in this novel ultimately revolves concerns the construction of a $275 million baseball stadium, a project that is universally referred to as "Steelton 2000." The issue that divides the candidates is fundamental. Is Steelton 2000, as Krajek claims, the tangible symbol of a new erainSteelton history, a source of jobs, taxes, and economic opportunities? Or does it represent another kind of symbol: of greed, profiteering, and political and corporate malfeasance? Stella herself wants very much to believe that the new stadium will provide the key to the revitalization of Steelton. Unfortunately, her investigation into a pair of seemingly unrelated murders murders that stand at the heart of Dark Lady's convoluted plot leads her to an inescapable conclusion: that the entire project has been compromised by the corrupt ambitions of its own central supporters.
The first of the two murder victims is Tommy Fielding, project manager for Steelton 2000. Fielding, together with a prostitute and long-term drug addict named Tina Welsh, is found dead of a massive heroin overdose. The circumstances of his death are so radically out of character that no one who knew him can accept them at face value. The second murder victim is Jack Novak, a lawyer who built a lucrative career defending the interests of Steelton's leading drug dealers. Novak who, many years before, had been Stella Marz's lover is found castrated and hanging from a clothes hook in his own bedroom, in a grotesque parody of the rituals of autoerotic asphyxiation.
Stella's investigation reveals unexpected connections between these two deaths. As she unearths the details of Jack Novak's corrupt, increasingly decadent career a process that revives some painful personal memories of her own she follows a convoluted paper trail that leads, in time, from Jack Novak to Steelton 2000, and from Steelton 2000 to the shadowy domain of Vincent Moro, who has dominated the criminal underworld of Steelton for more than a generation. Along the way, she uncovers another series of unexpected connections that implicate a number of the city's leading citizens, all of whom are caught up, willingly or not, in an elaborate, long-term scheme that centers around a single enormous question: Who will control the economic future of Steelton?
Patterson, it must be said, is not an elegant stylist. He writes what might be termed a lawyer's prose: brisk, efficient, frequently lacking in subtlety or nuance. But there is a cumulative, Dreiser-like power in this novel that is difficult to ignore, a power that has its basis in Patterson's thorough, practical understanding of the machinery of urban politics; in his detailed, highly convincing sense of place; and in his clear-eyed view of the various temptations sexual, financial, political that complicate the lives of so many of his characters. The result is a novel that gradually, inexorably asserts its hold on us and leaves a bitter but unmistakable aftertaste behind.
Stella makes Dark Lady shine.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Patterson's signature style of crime suspense depends heavily on the terse descriptive passages he uses to render settings and characters. This makes his work adapt especially well to audio, since the listener is constantly being told exactly what's going on--in adjective-laden language that has modern-day colorings of film noir and Raymond Chandler. (Accordingly, all eight of Patterson's previous novels are also available from Random House AudioBooks). Stella Marz is a politically ambitious Assistant County Prosecutor in Steelton, an American rust-belt city plagued by unemployment, racial division and rampant local corruption. Young, beautiful and forthright, Stella has earned the nickname "Dark Lady" as a ruthless law-woman. But she meets her match when she's assigned to investigate the grisly murder of her own ex-lover, an attorney for the town's drug dealers. Along the way, plenty of sordid sexual and violent acts are detailed, making for a sustained mood of grimy titillation. Kalember's (of TV's Sisters and thirtysomething) reading is crisply enunciated and tactfully understated. Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover. Also available unabridged and on CD. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Patterson (No Safe Place) deftly combines his knack for spellbinding legal drama and his recent interest in the world of politics. Stella Marz is the assistant county prosecutor in a struggling Midwestern city. Her boss is running for mayor, and Stella hopes to be elected to his job. First, however, she must investigate the deaths of two prominent men--the project manager for the construction of a new baseball stadium and the city's leading defender of drug cases. Neither is clearly murder, but the circumstances are horrific and unusual, involving heroin and kinky sex. Stella's investigation quickly becomes a factor in the mayoral race, and the candidates, their backers, and other ambitious county employees all play roles in Stella's progress. The deeper she goes, the more signs of corruption she finds, and the less she can trust her friends, her co-workers, and even herself. As in all of Patterson's books, the plot's twists and turns build to an unexpected conclusion. Patterson has peopled this very believable novel with fascinating characters, and his understanding of political subtleties is superb. Highly recommended. [Literary Guild main selection.]--Katherine E.A. Sorci, IIT Research Inst., Annapolis, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kinky sex, multiple murders, soap opera, city politicsa sturdy frame, as good and as potentially dramatic as anything Patterson has given us before. Yet once the premise and all of the players are in position, things turn clunky, then fall apart. Bad enough that the prose is cliched and the dialogue flavorless, but you quickly get a sinking feeling that the author is just going through the motions, narrating without any passion for his material, or even much interest. And heck, if he doesn't believe what he's saying, why should we?...
Give Patterson this: Despite all the tired hookum this time, and a finale that lumbers along for nearly a hundred pages, he doesn't fudge when it comes to his novel's undergirding facts. Dark Lady is at its best during its frequent, if long-winded, tutorials on the poli-sci of stadium building. But that's not enough to keep those of us outside the construction industry glued to the page.
September 3, 1999
Patterson, always on the lookout for real-life issues to hang his big-ticket thrillers on, has found another one•almost•in the hotly contested new baseball stadium to be built in Pittsburgh with public financing. It's clear from the beginning that the new stadium defines the mayoral race in Steelton, Patterson's fictionalized Pittsburgh. Incumbent mayor Tom Krajek flourishes figures about minority contractors and visions of civic revitalization to rally support for Steelton 2000; his opponent, Erie County prosecutor Arthur Bright, ridicules Steelton 2000 as welfare for the rich•especially for Peter Hall, the dynastic principal owner of the Blues. And it's almost equally clear that the stadium is connected in some way to the unsavory deaths of Tommy Fielding, project supervisor for Steelton 2000, and nonpareil drug attorney Jack Novak. What's not clear is just what the connection is. Enter Stella Marz, the Dark Lady of Arthur Bright's homicide unit, who hopes to run for prosecutor herself if Arthur's mayoral bid succeeds•and if her unit can find the people responsible for these latest high-profile murders. But Stella's two goals are hopelessly at odds. Her ability to gather information linking Tommy, well-protected by City Hall and that other Hall, and Jack, her ex-boss and ex-lover, to legendary crime overlord Vincent Moro is constantly undermined by her former ties to Jack, whom she left when she realized how nasty his sexual proclivities were, and her current ties to Arthur. Meantime, she can't trust any of her likeliest allies, from Arthur to doughty Chief of Detectives Nathaniel Dance to Michael Del Corso, the whiz-kid county attorney who knows too much about Steelton 2000 forcomfort•or perhaps for romance. Dense, knotty, and earnest, though the monstrous stadium isn't quite the high-concept hook Patterson (No Safe Place, 1998, etc.) would need to pull it all together. What he offers instead is a familiar brew of kinky sex, political fixes, and twenty channels of nonstop Vincent Moro. (Literary Guild main selection)
From the Publisher
"ENGROSSING . . . TRUE SUSPENSE."
San Francisco Chronicle
"[A] COMPLEX TALE OF PERSONAL, POLITICAL, AND CRIMINAL BETRAYALS . . . Dark Lady not only keeps you in suspense; it gives you plenty of social and moral questions to ponder."
The Wall Street Journal
"EXCELLENT . . . ONCE AGAIN PATTERSON REVEALS HIMSELF TO BE A MASTER OF CRAFTING MEMORABLE CHARACTERS. AND THE LONELY, LOVELY STELLA MARZ . . . IS ONE OF HIS BEST."
Read an Excerpt
In the moments before the brutal murder of Jack Novak ended what she later thought of as her time of innocence, Assistant County Prosecutor Stella Marz gazed down at the waterfront of her native city, Steelton.
At thirty-eight, Stella would not have called herself an innocent. Nor was the view from her corner office one that lightened her heart. The afternoon sky was a close, sunless cobalt, typical of Steelton in winter. The sludge-gray Onandaga River divided the city as it met Lake Erie beneath a steel bridge: the valley carved by the river was a treeless expanse of railroad tracks, boxcars, refineries, cranes, chemical plants, and, looming over all of this, the smokestacks of the steel mills--squat, black, and enormous--on which Steelton's existence had once depended. From early childhood, Stella could remember the stench of mill smoke, the stain left on the white blouse of her school uniform drying on her mother's clothesline; from her time in night law school, she recalled the evening that the river had exploded in a stunning instant of spontaneous combustion caused by chemical waste and petroleum derivatives, the flames which climbed five stories high against the darkness. Between these two moments--the apogee of the mills and the explosion of the river--lay the story of a city and its decline.
By heritage, Stella herself was part of this story. The mills had boomed after the Civil War, manned by the earliest wave of immigrants--Germans and British, Welsh and Irish--who, in the early 1870s, had worked fourteen hours a day, six days a week. Their weekly pay was $11.50; in 1874, years of seething resentment ignited a strike, with angry workers demanding twenty-five cents more a week. The leading owner, Amasa Hall, shut down his mills, informing the strikers that, upon reopening, he would give jobs only to those who agreed to a fifty-cent cut. When the strikers refused, Hall boarded his yacht and embarked on a cruise around the world.
Hall stopped at Danzig, then a Polish seaport on the Baltic. He advertised extensively for young workers, offering the kingly wage of $7.25 a week and free transport to America. The resulting wave of Polish strikebreakers--poor, hardworking, Roman Catholic, and largely illiterate--had included Stella's great-grandfather, Carol Marzewski. It was on their backs that Amasa Hall had, quite systematically, undercut and eventually wiped out the other steel producers in the area, acquiring their mills and near-total sway over the region's steel industry. And it was the slow, inexorable decline of those same mills into sputtering obsolescence which had left Stella's father, Armin Marz, unemployed and bitter.
Recalling the flames which had leaped from the Onandaga, a brilliant orange-blue against the night sky, had reminded Stella of another memory from childhood, the East Side riots. Just as the West Side of Steelton was home to European immigrants--the first wave had been joined by Italians, Russians, Poles, Slovaks, and Austro-Hungarians--so the city's industry had drawn a later influx of migrants from the American South, the descendants of former slaves, to the eastern side of the Onandaga. But these newcomers were less welcomed, by employers or the heretofore all-white labor force. Stella could not remember a time in her old neighborhood, Warszawa, when the black interlopers were not viewed with suspicion and contempt; the fiery explosion of the East Side into riots in the sixties--three days of arson and shootouts with police--had helped convert this into fear and hatred. A last trickle of nonwhites--Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Koreans, Haitians, Chinese, and Vietnamese--felt welcome, if at all, only on the impoverished East Side. And so the split symbolized by the Onandaga hardened, and racial politics became as natural to Steelton as breathing polluted air.
This divide, too, shadowed Stella's thoughts. In the last six years, she had won every case but one--a hung jury following the murder trial of a high school coach who had made one of his students pregnant and who, devastated by Stella's particularly ruthless cross-examination, had thereafter committed suicide. It was this which had led a courtroom deputy to give Stella a nickname which now enjoyed wide currency among the criminal defense bar: the Dark Lady. But only recently had they become aware of her ambition, long nurtured, to become the first woman elected Prosecutor of Erie County.
Though this was a daunting task, it was by no means impossible. Stella was a daughter of the West Side, a young woman her neighborhood was proud of--an honors student who had worked through college and law school; had remained an observant Catholic; had not turned her back on Steelton and its problems, as had so many of her generation; had already become head of her office's homicide unit. Stella was not a vain woman, and had always seen herself with objectivity: though she lacked the gifts for bonhomie and self-promotion natural to many politicians, she was articulate, truthful, and genuinely concerned with making her office, and her city, better. She was attractive enough without being threatening to other women, with a tangle of thick brown hair; pale skin; a broad face with a cleft chin and somewhat exotic brown eyes, a hint of Eurasia which Stella privately considered her best feature; a sturdy build which she managed to keep trim through relentless exercise and attention to diet, yet another facet of the self-discipline which had been hammered into her at home and school. And if there were no husband or children to soften the image of an all-business prosecutor or, Stella thought ruefully, her deepening sense of solitude, at least there was no one to object or to say, as Armin Marz might, had he not lost the gifts of memory and reason, that she was reaching above herself.
But her biggest problem, Stella knew, was not that she was a woman. It was as clear to her as the river which divided her city: she was a white ethnic with no base on the black East Side. And with that, her thoughts, and her gaze, moved to the most hopeful, most problematic, aspect of the cityscape before her--the steel skeleton of the baseball stadium Mayor Krajek had labeled Steelton 2000.