April 17, 2007

BOOKS: Capitol Threat, William Bernhardt (2007)

15th in Bernhardt's Ben Kincaid series.

I'd read some of the early volumes in this series, but it had drifted off my radar in recent years. They were, as I remember them, servicable legal thrillers. Not as well-written as Turow, not the same narrative drive as the best Grisham, but moderately entertaining stories about a Tulsa defense attorney. In this volume, Kincaid has recently been appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate (as the result of events in the previous volume, I gather), where he is the most junior member, still struggling to fit in and get used to Senate customs and procedures.

Here's the setup for Bernhardt's story in this volume: There's a Supreme Court vacancy, and everyone expects the conservative Republican president to nominate a fire-breathing conservative; he has a majority in the Senate, after all, and can probably get a confirmation for anyone he likes. It is a great surprise, therefore, when he nominates Thaddeus Roush; Roush is conservative, to be sure, but firmly believes that his personal views ought not color his judgments from the bench. He is liked and respected by those on both sides of the political spectrum.

(Is there anything in that paragraph that feels even remotely plausible in the current political environment? But wait, there's more...)

Roush has a big surprise up his sleeve, though, that somehow didn't get discovered during the vetting process, and he shocks the President at his "here's my nominee" press conference by announcing that he is gay. This causes a furor, with Republicans trying to find a credible excuse to kill his nomination and Democrats suddenly supporting him, if only out of fear that the replacement would be worse. So Roush holds another press conference, this one at his home, hoping to address the many questions that have risen, when a freshly murdered body is found in his garden.

If you're anything like me, you are now giggling uncontrollably at the complete loopiness of this plot. But somehow, Bernhardt makes it work. Sure, it's a far-fetched story, but it makes for a goofy wild ride, and you almost have to marvel at the audacity with which he heaps on one outlandish plot twist after another. The action moves briskly along; the fight scenes involving Kincaid's investigator and various villains are exciting; and the prose, if not of the finest literary quality, is unobtrusively competent. If you like this sort of legal/political thriller, this will make for a fine beach or airplane read.

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