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Harry Levy

Random House, May 1998, $23.00

Ballantine, June 1999, $6.99

Reviewed by Joe Obermaier

There can be a certain thrill in reading a work of fiction derived, at least in part, from events that have actually occurred; stories that have been "ripped from the headlines," to use the marketing lingo. The events, questions, and crises can seem somehow "more real" than with your typical mystery, and some understanding of the type of events portrayed can help move the story along.

There are also, however, grave dangers in drawing too much from real life. Such a work often runs the risk of being outdone by the true drama from which it's deriving its spirit. Or more likely, going too often to the reality well leads the author to simply recycle worn elements of a familiar story rather than put forth a fresh mystery. So it is with Chain of Custody.

In this debut mystery, Harry Levy introduces us to Dr. Michael Malone. Dr. Malone is a former police surgeon and cardiologist in New York City, who left the world of medicine to become a lawyer when dissatisfied by the realities of treating patients. His legal specialty becomes medical malpractice, and since he is suing the city in the case of the wrongful death of a prisoner, he succeeds in antagonizing the police department, the district attorney's office and even the partners in his own law firm. When his nearly ex-wife, a deputy district attorney, is found murdered and crammed into a freezer in their old apartment, and his blood is discovered at the scene, Dr. Malone is forced to prove his innocence.

If familiarity does indeed breed contempt, then there is no instance where this can be more true than with anything even remotely connected with the O.J. Simpson murder case. And Chain of Custody is top heavy with overblown references to that case. I don't mean sly, oblique, "did we catch that?" type references. Rather, the author's writing style practically underscores the allusions as if afraid that we would miss them. The case is named or referenced more times than I can count. Dr. Malone and his lawyer refer to themselves as the "dream team." The prosecution is headed by a young woman and a tall black man, described as "a kinder, gentler version of Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden." There is an Asian criminologist who holds forth on blood testing and preservatives used in DNA analysis. The "predominately African American jury" is even given "a second chance to do justice on behalf of a murdered wife."

Mining the familiar ground of the Simpson case for the core of a mystery story is a difficult task at best. We know all about the O.J. case whether we want to or not (or wish we could forget). Such a mystery needs enough new elements to focus our attention on this story and not view it as little more than a trivial variation on the story we've heard too many times before. In my view, the abundance of O.J. allusions actually hurt what might have otherwise been a fascinating mystery. The discussion of forensics in Chain of Custody in this climate, rather than being cutting edge, seems almost hackneyed and old hat. While Chain of Custody does give us a few new elements, such as a great way to confuse time of death and some interesting thoughts on the reliability of DNA evidence, those elements are buried in the avalanche of allusions and references.

As for the hero, Dr. Malone, at first it is hard to work up any compassion for this impossibly self-absorbed, cynical wise-guy attorney/physician. There is no denying, however, that Malone is bright and amusing. The idea of a hero this unconventional (a doctor who decides he can do more good as a lawyer?) is intriguing, and Levy handles the nagging uncertainty of his guilt or innocence smoothly and gracefully.

The supporting cast is typical for the genre, though not original (just one more alienated, sullen teenager and a gruff, Italian cop who knows how to "work" the system, etc.). However, all the characters are basically credible and portrayed in a realistic manner. Levy furnishes Dr. Malone's background story quickly and sensibly. The trial scenes were genuine and well presented (unrealistic courtroom antics have long been a pet peeve of mine with legal thrillers). Though I think Levy has a heavy hand in salting his novel with red herrings, they are more of a nuisance than a distraction, and veteran readers of mysteries will still most likely have guessed the killer's identity long before it is revealed.

Chain of Custody is an interesting, if somewhat disappointing debut mystery. Dr. Malone is an appealing hero, whose complicated background should provide ample fodder for a number of future mysteries. I just wish Harry Levy had begun his mystery career with a more engaging, unique story, instead of re-treading on all too familiar ground.

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