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.
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.