January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

by Richard North Patterson

High on drink and drugs, young Brett Allen and her boyfriend make love beside a moonlit lake. Moments later he is murdered; she has fled naked into the woods. The first chapter of Patterson’s novel has the makings of a thriller, but then a few doubts set in.

Veteran defense attorney Caroline Masters, who appeared in two earlier Patterson courtroom thrillers, is now a San Francisco law-firm partner on the verge of a coveted presidential appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Long estranged from her New Hampshire family, she is summoned home when Brett Allen, her niece, is charged with the lakeside murder.

Patterson lingers too long on family history, but when Brett gets to court, the pace picks up. Press attention may jeopardize Caroline’s presidential appointment; she must deal with a father who long ago betrayed the love of her life; there is the strain of a renewed relationship with the man who will prosecute. And she must refute the damning testimony of a sex-crazed woman determined to see Brett hang.

The novel builds to several breathtaking surprises (the biggest of which, however, succeeds only because the author has shamelessly withheld a truth Caroline knew from day one). Did Brett kill that boy by the lake? Will Caroline become a high-court judge? The answers will satisfy most readers; a few may protest the author’s deceit. (Knopf, $25)

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