William Bernhardt is one of those guys who labors mightily and persistently despite not being a household name. He actually makes this work to his benefit. He can stretch a bit here and there, and take a chance or three that he might not otherwise be able to because he, at this stage, is not quite well known enough to have to live up to certain expectations. I'm not sure why he isn't better known --- his publisher certainly believes in him, and he can craft as a compelling a page turner as anyone. If one occasionally finds their suspension of disbelief sliding into "Hey, wait a minute" territory while reading his work, it certainly doesn't keep the pages from turning almost of their own volition.
CRIMINAL INTENT is Bernhardt's latest work; Bernhardt takes a big chance here, combining the best elements of two tested subcategories of the mystery genre --- the legal thriller and the drawing room mystery. Whatever strengths and weaknesses Bernhardt's work might have, it is simply amazing how he can so seamlessly combine these elements and craft a work which keeps the reader guessing up to the last few pages while at the same time propelling the reader smartly along. On top of that, he presents an extremely unlikely suspect: Father Daniel Beale, an Episcopal priest who is not exactly the most likable of characters. He's managed to alienate at least half of his parishioners by dragging them, kicking and screaming, toward his view of what's what, with the result that his flock is inexorably straying toward other shepherds.
When Beale is accused of murder, Attorney Ben Kincaid is there to see him through. Kincaid and Beale go back a long way, practically to Kincaid's childhood, and Kincaid is more than capable of seeing the good in the man. When yet another murder occurs, however, and Beale is caught literally red-handed, it seems all but certain that he is indeed the murderer. Kincaid does his best, but even his own client seems to be working against him. For there is much about Beale that Kincaid does not know. Surprise after devastating surprise awaits Kincaid as he attempts to defend Beale --- a task which, it appears, amounts to defending the indefensible.
Bernhardt's fan base will undoubtedly consider CRIMINAL INTENT to be one of his best; certainly this is one of more compelling novels to be published by anyone this year. Kincaid is just offbeat enough, just eccentric enough, to be real and unclassifiable, and his supporting cast is interesting but never threatens to overshadow him. And if you've tried one of Bernhardt's novels in the past, but never returned to his work, CRIMINAL INTENT would be a good way to renew an old but unfulfilled acquaintance. This might be the one that puts Bernhardt's name, already on the map, in bolder letters.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 1, 2003