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Patterson Tackles Big Issues in New Political Thriller
Richard North Patterson's Protect and Defend is many things at once: a courtroom drama, a work of social criticism, an examination of the harsh realities of public life, and an evenhanded analysis of the controversial, interconnected issues of late-term abortion and parental consent. The result of all this is a compelling, hugely ambitious narrative that successfully illuminates the predatory nature of life in the corridors of power.
Protect and Defend begins, portentously, with an inauguration and a death. Kerry Kilcannon, last seen in No Safe Place, has just been elected President by the narrowest of margins. In the aftermath of his inaugural address, Roger Bannon, Chief Justice of a bitterly divided Supreme Court, suffers a fatal stroke, providing the administration with its first major challenge: finding a suitable replacement. Willfully courting controversy, Kilcannon nominates Caroline Masters -- a recurring Patterson heroine -- as the first female Chief Justice in the history of the Court.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a potentially life-altering event gathers momentum. Mary Ann Tierney, the pregnant, 15-year-old daughter of devoutly pro-life parents, learns that her fetus, which is over five months old and legally viable, is hydrocephalic and is likely to be born without a cerebral cortex. When she also learns that the cesarean section required for the child's delivery carries a measurable risk of future infertility, she requests an abortion. Her parents, backed by a recent piece of legislation called the Protection of Life Act, predictably withhold their consent. All this sets the stage for the dramatic centerpiece of the book, as Mary Ann, aided by a gifted young lawyer named Sarah Dash, takes her case to the courts, challenging both her parents' most deep-seated beliefs and the constitutionality of the Protection of Life Act.
What follows is a rigorously constructed debate on late-term abortion that rapidly becomes a national cause celebre. As the case proceeds through the various levels of the judicial system, it begins to exert a gravitational pull that affects both the Caroline Masters confirmation hearings and the professional -- and sometimes personal -- lives of almost every major character. Many of these characters have complex personal histories, and -- in some cases -- carefully concealed secrets. Most of these secrets will be dragged into the light before the narrative ends.
Protect and Defend cogently addresses a number of troubling issues: abortion, the right to privacy, the politics of scandal, the Faustian compact between elected officials and special interest lobbies, the difficulty of making honorable choices in a world ruled by political expediency. It is, to my mind, Richard North Patterson's best, most provocative novel to date, a closely observed, brilliantly detailed portrait of the best and worst aspects of the democratic process.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).