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“Dark Ambition” by Allan Topol (Onyx Books, 468 pages, $6.99) D.C. lawyer and spy novelist Allan Topol must be sitting by the phone waiting for a call from Hollywood. His fast-paced fourth novel, Dark Ambition, is a big-budget spy movie waiting to happen. Unlike most other members of the lawyer-novelist fraternity, Topol turns out good old-fashioned spy stories that leave the corridors of big law firm business far behind in favor of the broader stage of foreign affairs, political intrigue, and the murky recesses of human desire. And if the lawyers that move through Dark Ambition talk in clipped sentences more reminiscent of film noir scripts than your average regulatory attorney, that’s probably for the best. In this tightly written novel, Topol captures well the quiet neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and the occasional ruthlessness of its people. In Topol’s Washington, spouses are neglected, movie stars show up at the opera, and doing one’s job means making bone-chilling decisions about the future of the world. For the local reader, Dark Ambition offers the additional pleasure of familiar street names and thoroughly Washington characters. There are plenty of the latter to go around � from the dedicated prosecutor in the rumpled suit to the overeducated and overweening political players to the disaffected spy. Multiples of all are on display. Topol’s story opens at the home of Robert Winthrop, a dissipated, if not ineffective, secretary of state with a loveless marriage and a bit of a sex addiction. From the beginning, we readers know it’s the leggy blonde in the leather G-string who pulled the trigger. But who is she and why did she and possibly others want Winthrop dead? Our sleuthing hero is Ben Hartwell, the dedicated prosecutor in the aforementioned rumpled suit. Ordered to hold off on his case against a powerful senator so the president can count on an extra vote for tax reform � a slightly confusing, if unimportant plot thread � Hartwell is handed the Winthrop case. Only it’s not the sinewy blonde he’s supposed to nail, but Clyde Gillis, the Winthrops’ saintly and innocent gardener who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a Dickensian coincidence, the lost love of Hartwell’s life also happens to be the best friend of Winthrop’s widow. The less-than-grieving Ann Winthrop knows in her heart of hearts that Gillis didn’t do it. She’s convinced the murder has something to do with the Chinese government and her husband’s machinations involving Taiwan. She turns to her lawyer friend Jennifer Moore to defend the underpaid gardener against what seems like a White House orchestrated conviction of an innocent man. Beautiful, smart, and talented, Moore is a ballerina turned actress turned prosecutor turned big-firm litigator. Her biography is one only a thriller could support. (The character also lives on the Washington street where this reviewer grew up. Who knew?) Although they are legal adversaries, Hartwell and Moore team up to unravel the mystery of Winthrop’s murder. In the process, they uncover shady dealings around the globe, and chip away the veneer concealing the nefarious ambitions of some of Washington’s most influential players. Of course, their carnal ambitions toward each other are given due attention. Topol pulls no punches when penning sex scenes. A few choice moments in Dark Ambition might even warrant more than an R rating on the big screen. Other aspects of the novel are a little too familiar. One character in particular is simply a redrawing of Nikita, the Paris urchin plucked from a crime-infested gutter and remade into a steely assassin in the 1990 film “La Femme Nikita.” But in Topol’s version, the urchin-turned-assassin is a blond, buxom Bostonian who runs braless through Rock Creek Park. Topol is more successful when he uses true-to-life political situations to show off his skill as a realist. The continuing tension between China and Taiwan as well as the United States’ singular power to destroy the fragile d�tente animate some of the novel’s most vividly written scenes. The cloak and dagger scenes woven from this real-life situation do little to further the main story. But these action-packed scenes are a gripping distraction and only a churl would complain about them getting in the way of the plot. Topol rewards his readers with a strong finish. The threads come together. Most of them make sense. The moment of revelation is terrifically drawn, and Topol gives the reader just enough denouement to satisfy. Topol’s primary occupation is co-chairing Covington & Burling’s environmental law practice. On the strength of this novel, however, he could consider quitting his day job, if he wanted to. Lawyer novelists, though, rarely leave the practice. Why is that? Siobhan Roth is a reporter at Legal Times.

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