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“Devil’s Corner” By Lisa Scottoline (HarperCollins, $25.95) An office romance, it turns out, can be a many-splendored thing. This is particularly true where the target of your affections has key documents to which you’d otherwise never have access, were he not staying the night in your apartment and carelessly leaving his briefcase unlocked. Which is not to say that Assistant U.S. Attorney Vicki Allegretti, the heroine of “Devil’s Corner,” does not derive other substantial benefits from the relationship she’s having with her senior colleague Dan Malloy. Dan has been her best friend at the office since her first day, and without Dan’s guidance, Vicki’s recent transition from the district attorney’s office would have been far more difficult. Conveniently enough, Dan is also extremely attractive and, while undoubtedly married, he at least had the decency to have wed a woman who is never home, due to her working hours as a surgeon at the local hospital. Consequently, Dan and Vicki spend as much time together out of the office as in it; several times a week, he’ll come over and cook dinner for Vicki and, over a bottle of wine, employ his endless charm to take the edge off of a hard day. Vicki and Dan have an ostensibly platonic relationship (to Vicki’s endless and very entertainingly written frustration) for the duration of Dan’s marriage. Only once that marriage ends (the day after, to be exact), do Vicki and Dan finally act upon their long-simmering attraction to one another. But ironically, as described by author Lisa Scottoline, the chemistry between these two characters dissipates in tandem with all extrinsic barriers to their love. Yes, Dan essentially moves into Vicki’s apartment and, more particularly, her bedroom, but Scottoline’s tired, cliche-ridden portrayal of their relationship leaves one wondering why these office mates are even bothering to pursue their extracurricular activities. This aspect of “Devil’s Corner” stands out only because nearly every other aspect of this mystery — and particularly the descriptions of Vicki’s relationships with everyone else in her life — is so well written. Scottoline, a New York Times best-selling author of 11 novels and a former trial lawyer, has a gift for vivid character portrayal and for fast-paced writing. She never allows the momentum to slacken even as the facts become increasingly convoluted and the connections among her characters decreasingly credible. The backdrop is a drug- and crime-ridden neighborhood in Philadelphia’s inner city. Once-elegant brownstones have been left to rot and are boarded up, or used as havens for dealers and users. Playgrounds have been replaced by crack “stores” where dealers sell their wares to desperate men and women. Brutal violence is a daily occurrence, too routine to even warrant mention in the local news. Devil’s Corner holds special interest for Vicki not only because her murder-solving odyssey (aided immeasurably by those documents in Dan’s briefcase) takes her to the front doorstep of one of its leading drug dealers, but because her own father grew up there many years ago. Scottoline deftly depicts the strained relationship between Vicki and her father (he still hasn’t recovered from her decision not to go into the family law practice), and subtly but effectively suggests that Vicki’s unwavering efforts to solve the crimes at hand are as much an effort on her part to heal this rift as to find the evil perpetrators. The perpetrators for whom Vicki is searching are those responsible for the multiple murders at the heart of “Devil’s Corner”: the murder of Bob Morton, a heroic ATF case agent and one of Vicki’s closest friends on the job, the murder of Shayla Jackson, Vicki’s sole witness in a case that Vicki is preparing against one Reheema Bristow, and, later on in the book, the murder of Arissa Bristow, Reheema’s mother. Over the course of the novel, Scottoline weaves a complicated tale linking these murders and those who have committed them. Scottoline’s choice to write about several murders at once, when just one, written in her high-speed style, would have afforded ample excitement, renders the plot of “Devil’s Corner” slightly too thick at times. Where Scottoline’s talents shine is in her description of the relationship that develops between Vicki and Reheema Bristow. These two women begin as bitter adversaries, as Vicki is pursuing a “straw purchase” case against Bristow — a case where Bristow is alleged to have illegally purchased guns for resale. Vicki’s case against Bristow essentially dies along with the murder of Shayla Jackson. During their first meeting at the detention center where Bristow is being held, however, Vicki is so enraged by Bristow’s arrogant intransigence that she smacks her — and is put on temporary work leave as a result. Bristow is eventually released from detention and, through a series of events that you’ll have to read “Devil’s Corner” to learn, Bristow and Vicki change from two women filled with mutual distrust (to Bristow, Vicki is an elitist Harvard Law alumna without a shred of street smarts; to Vicki, Bristow is an impulsive, foolish woman throwing her life away) to women with mutual respect. Their diametrically opposite backgrounds notwithstanding — one white, well educated and wealthy, the other poor, black and the child of a crack addict — Vicki and Reheema find that they have much to learn from each other. Scottoline charts this not-so-smooth transition in a realistic fashion, with crisp, witty dialogue flying between the characters. It’s a pleasant surprise to see strong female characters like Vicki and Reheema at the helm of a popular thriller like “Devil’s Corner,” a genre that tends to feature women who, if not mere props altogether, are doing all they can do to be just like the men around them. Scottoline, in refreshing contrast, manages to maintain her characters’ femininity even while portraying them as smart and savvy crime-solvers. Other authors would do well to follow Scottoline’s lead. Ina R. Bort is a partner at Kornstein Veisz Wexler & Pollard in New York City.

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