Compelling evidence of undue influence

THE ATTORNEY Steve Martini G.P. Putnam's Sons 429 pp., $25.95

In his new legal thriller, "The Attorney," Steve Martini invests so much imagination in conjuring up improbable names (Jonah Hale, Joaquim Murphy, Victor Koblinski, Jason Crow, Floyd Avery, and - best of all - Zolanda Suade) that it's a shame he didn't invest a couple more minutes in naming the book itself. Fortunately, "The Attorney" is a good deal less conventional than the drab title would suggest.

The author revisits lawyer Paul Madriani from his previous hit thriller "Undue Influence" and relocates him from Washington, D.C., to San Diego.

Madriani's new practice begins with a seemingly innocuous request (isn't that always the case!) to help an elderly millionaire find his young granddaughter, who has been kidnapped by her drug-addled mother, Jessica.

Madriani discovers that Jessica didn't act alone; she enlisted the sympathies of a hard-nosed children's-rights activist, Suade, who specializes in smuggling away children that she suspects of living in abusive homes. Suade turns up all too briefly for one showboating scene before she is discovered murdered with plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that Madriani's millionaire client is guilty.

As Suade's blood thickens, so does the plot. Madriani learns that Jessica is also wanted by a shadowy Mexican drug lord from her past, who may be behind the murders.

Martini's use of Paul Madriani as narrator is a shrewd move that sustains interest when the low-key plot takes a while to shift into higher gear. The writing is enlivened with inventive metaphors and phrasing, though the characters fail to rise above the superficial. Well-observed courtroom maneuvering, nifty twists, and a few chase scenes ensure that "The Attorney" will fill the docket for mystery readers.

*Stephen Humphries is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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