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The legal thriller, a once thriving subgenre that has suffered a slight downturn in recent years, appears to be undergoing a modest resurgence. Over the past several months, a number of talented newcomers -- practicing attorneys who can actually write -- have entered the field, among them Sheldon Siegel, who started off the new year with his sparkling legal melodrama, Special Circumstances, and, most recently, Stephen Horn, who makes a notable debut with In Her Defense, a stylish, convoluted account of blackmail, murder, and governmental conspiracy.
The narrator/hero of In Her Defense is Frank O'Connell, a once prominent Washington attorney who has fallen on hard times. A few years before the narrative begins, Frank appeared to have everything: a thriving marriage, a full partnership in his father-in-law's prestigious law firm, and virtually unlimited prospects. Responding to a combination of influences -- such as his innate love of risk and his growing sense that life had become too predictable, too comfortable -- he walked out on his affluent partnership and set up shop on his own, sacrificing his home and his marriage in the process.
Three years after walking out, Frank has a therapist, a one-bedroom apartment, a borrowed office, and a subsistence-level practice as a court-appointed public defender. Then, without warning, a lucrative, high-profile murder case falls into his lap.
Ashley Bronson, a beautiful and wealthy Washington socialite, has been accused of murdering Raymond Garvey, a former secretary of commerce who made a handsome living as a deal-maker, facilitator, and power broker. Impressed by Frank's demeanor during a glancing encounter in a D.C. holding cell, Ashley impulsively hires him to manage her defense and then delivers the worst possible news: she is, in fact, guilty as charged. Convinced that Garvey had provoked her father -- a scientist and patron of the arts named Henry Bronson -- into committing suicide, Ashley confronted Garvey in his Georgetown residence and shot him to death.
In Her Defense recounts Frank's dogged attempts to obscure the facts in order to introduce the necessary element of "reasonable doubt." When his best efforts -- which include attacking the validity of the physical evidence and impugning the credibility of the state's leading witness -- prove insufficient, Frank alters his strategy and begins to scrutinize the hostile relationship between the murder victim, Raymond Garvey, and the suicide of Henry Bronson.
The resulting investigation has unexpected consequences and involves the interconnected machinations of an aristocratic Virginian named Sherman Burroughs, a sinister corporation called Octagon, and a deceased Soviet defector named Kovalev. The various threads lead backward in time to the early days of the cold war, the clandestine world of atomic research, and a misguided act of idealism whose aftereffects can still be felt nearly half a century later. The subsequent discovery of the FBI's covert -- and highly illegal -- involvement in these matters provides Frank with a last-ditch opportunity to influence the course of the trial, and to introduce a startling new interpretation of the events leading up to Raymond Garvey's death.
Not every aspect of In Her Defense works equally well. Horn's conspiracy-driven plot occasionally strains the novel's credibility, and the obligatory romance that develops between Frank and his client is considerably less interesting than the legal drama that surrounds it. For the most part, the book works. The first-person narrative is crisp and clean, the dialogue smart and edgy, the legal maneuverings compelling, and the courtroom sequences (particularly the extended cross-examination of a supposed eyewitness) authoritative and dramatic.
But the real strength of In Her Defense lies in Horn's thoughtful, empathetic presentation of Frank O'Connell as an intelligent, vulnerable, fiercely competitive figure who has somehow lost his way. The Ashley Bronson trial provides Frank with both a vehicle for his professional rehabilitation and a lifeline that leads him, slowly and with much difficulty, toward an act of reconciliation that is credible and affecting. Stephen Horn may not be the next Scott Turow, but he is a gifted storyteller and an acute observer of men and women under pressure. He has written a lively, likeable courtroom thriller that is consistently entertaining and cumulatively involving. I look forward to encountering his work again.