With his brilliant first crime stories, "Dead Irish," and "The Vig," John Lescroart seemed well on his way to becoming the Elmore Leonard of the West Coast. Then he changed pace, putting his bartender-with-a-law-degree hero, Dismas Hardy, back into the judicial system and making like John Grisham.
The results have been uneven at best. His characters are always good and the settings evocative, but several of Lescroart 's plots have been based on wild coincidences that would make even Stuart Woods blush.
But while some mystery writers tend to fall apart when they try to get too serious, Lescroart thrives when he tackles a big issue (as he did in "A Certain Justice," with its Tom Wolfe-like look at big-city justice and race). Luckily for readers, this is one of those times.
In "The Mercy Rule," Dismas' client, Graham Russo, is accused of murdering his father and making it look like a suicide. Sal, a poor, self-employed fish dealer, was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and openly talked of killing himself before it got too bad.
At first, Graham, who had been estranged from his father, lies to the cops about their reconciliation, hoping to distance himself from the situation. Of course, when the lie is exposed, he looks guilty of something.
But what? Editorialists and interest groups line up for or against Graham on the issue of assisted suicide, but Graham insists to Dismas that he didn't do that, either. Graham even turns down a plea bargain that would get him no jail time because it involves admitting to assisting the suicide.
Then the state's attorney takes the case away from the district attorney, charges Graham with first-degree murder and asks for the death penalty, saying Graham killed Sal for a rare baseball card collection and a lump sum the miser had stored away.
Further complicating matters, a pro-suicide activist grabs headlines, supposedly to "help" Graham, claiming that they had discussed the best way to end his father's pain.
While Dismas and his Irish Catholic family discuss whether he should even take the case, Dismas alienates himself from his best friend, Homicide Lt. Abe Glitsky, by taking advantage of their friendship to bargain on Graham's behalf.
Things get even more tangled with Abe when one of his detectives, Sarah Evans, falls in love with Graham and begins working discreetly on his behalf.
But while the whole city and judicial system wrangle over the Big Issue of assisted suicide, Graham would like a jury to believe what no one else seems to: He is neither a martyr nor the tip of the slippery slope - just an innocent man.
Lescroart skillfully weaves his ingenious mystery plot, the philosophical arguments and political maneuverings into a potent, gripping novel that is fascinating from beginning to end.
While he has trod the San Francisco political turf before, he adds a new element to this story, the federal 9th District Court of Appeals, one of the nation's most radical courts.
"The Mercy Rule" also has characters with personal issues that are far more compelling to them than politics, crackling courtroom arguments and a whodunit plot that will keep the reader guessing until the very end.
This is a textbook example of how a popular entertainment can deal with a serious issue without ruining the fun - and, in fact, making it part of the attraction.