Rennell Price is a giant of a man without the mind to match. Retarded, black, the product of mean streets and the drugs that infuse them, he's stared death in the face not just for the decade and a half he's been imprisoned for the murder of a young girl, but for the better part of his 33 years.
By Richard North Patterson
Random House ($25.95)
His brother, Payton, also charged with the crime, sits, too, on that isolated stretch of steel bars and cold concrete known as death row.
We're introduced to the victim early on by way of a flashback, compliments of grizzled homicide detective Charles Monk. Washed ashore near a pile of rocks in San Francisco Bay, bloated from the sea, lies tiny Thuy Sen. The autopsy table reveals a nightmarish death -- not by drowning, but by asphyxiation from semen.
The juxtaposition of the 9-year-old victim and her older but mentally challenged assailant, along with his brother, makes for a rich, thrilling, occasionally slow-paced new novel from Richard North Patterson.
As in previous books in which Patterson took on controversial issues (gun control in "Balance of Power" and late-term abortion in "Protect and Defend"), he uses "Conviction" to tackle capital punishment in all its murky mythology.
The author dips into the vault to reintroduce readers to characters from an earlier novel, husband-wife attorneys Christopher and Terri Paget. It is Mrs. Paget who, along with her stepson lawyer, Carlos, gets the lion's share of the pages, working tirelessly to prevent Rennell Price's state-ordered execution by lethal injection. She has just 59 days to prove his innocence on appeal before the Supreme Court and against circumstantial evidence that appears overwhelming.
The nature of the sexual assault and murder, the high-profile coverage it received and the mental incompetence of her client are difficult enough to overcome, but Paget's pro-bono work also must find chinks in the armor of a legal system fortified by politics, judicial reticence and tradition -- not all of it pristine.
It's a tough ladder to climb, and the case inevitably takes its own toll on the Paget family, not to mention their standing within the legal community.
If the book has a flaw, it's in the legal detail Patterson appears to love but cannot spice by way of character development and -- to steal a legal (and journalistic) term -- sidebars. So dense is the book with legalese and complexity that it's easy to find yourself skimming pages here and there.
And the treatment of the accused can be cloying at times, particularly one passage in which Rennell produces a child-like, stick-figure drawing that's supposed to warm your soul and melt your resistance to the notion of his guilt.
Still, Patterson, himself an ex-lawyer, delivers enough action, intrigue and coherence to keep you plugged in until the emotionally searing, thought-provoking ending. And he punctuates that with an afterword that is both elucidating and heartfelt.
In short, this is a "Conviction" written with conviction. It isn't perfect, but you could find worse among its companions on the best-seller list.
Allan Walton, assistant managing editor/Features, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1932.