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.