The dedication that precedes the opening of John Lescroart's latest novel begins with the words "(B)ack to basics." Indeed, from its no-frills, no-nonsense title to its surprise coda, THE SUSPECT is just that. Those who feel that Lescroart may have strayed off the path a bit with 2006's THE HUNT CLUB will find much here for which to rejoice. This is a work that is beautifully written and carefully plotted, with solid characterizations --- a joy in every way.
THE SUSPECT marks the return of Gina Roake, a partner in Dismas Hardy's high-power San Francisco law firm. Roake receives a client referral from Jedd Conley, an old friend who is a rising star in state and local politics. Conley has a friend, an outdoors writer named Stuart Gorman, whose wife, Caryn Dryden, has been found dead. A successful and wealthy orthopedic surgeon, Dryden had asked Gorman for a divorce, a request that made him furious.
San Francisco homicide inspector Devin Juhle has been doing the math and figures that an angry husband plus a rich wife --- with a life insurance policy worth millions --- adds up to murder. Gorman has an alibi, but it's not exactly rock solid. And a witness, who is somewhat but not totally reliable, places him at the scene. Dryden's death may be an accident, a suicide or a murder; Juhle is betting on the latter. Roake is convinced of her client's innocence, even though Gorman is not acting particularly grief-stricken over his loss. However, Roake has a more significant problem with Gorman: he hasn't been telling her the truth, lying by omission. As any trial attorney will tell you, the toughest adversary to beat is your own client.
Still, there are other suspects. They include Dryden's business partner, who had quite a bit to gain from her death; Dryden's sister, who is poised to jump her brother-in-law's bones before Dryden even makes it to the cooling board; Gorman and Dryden's daughter, a real piece of work who didn't get along with mom all that well to begin with; and a mystery man who might have been Dryden's lover. And this doesn't even cover all of the suspects.
The most fun part about this book is trying to eliminate them one by one, even as the reader gets the feeling that the best suspect is Gorman, perhaps one of the most interesting creations of Lescroart's universe; though not particularly likable, Gorman is not a bad guy. Roake is a bit of an underdog here, given the fact that this is her first murder trial, and believably she is by turns tentative and surefooted. Her greatest assets, however, are ultimately displayed outside of the courtroom, as she lays a trap that hopefully will reveal the true cause of Dryden's death.
THE SUSPECT is Lescroart at his best, skillfully blending an interesting and intricate plot with solid characterization and even an in-joke or two (one of the minor characters shares his name with an enigmatic but influential real-world musician). This is a must-read for fans of the author or anyone with even a passing interest in the mystery genre.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011