Degree of Guilt

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Beautiful, successful television journalist Mary Carelli shoots and kills America’s most famous writer, Mark Ransom, in a posh San Francisco hotel suite. She claims he beat her and tried to rape her. Only the reader knows that she had taken off all her clothes before the alleged rape attempt and had put them back on before dialing 911. Because of discrepancies in her story, she comes under heavy suspicion and is offered a chance to plea-bargain, which would mean serving a few years in prison and ruining her career.

Mary goes to her former lover Christopher Paget for help. She knows he hates her for betraying him years ago in a vicious Washington political battle but will feel compelled to help her because they are the parents of a hypersensitive teenage boy whom they both want to protect from the psychological trauma of having a mother convicted of murder. Paget’s main problem is to buttress Mary’s story by finding witnesses to establish that Ransom had a violent, perverted nature. Many surprising facts are uncovered in the process.

The author has shrewdly chosen to follow the formula of the Perry Mason novels, which made Erle Stanley Gardner one of the most successful writers in American history. Patterson has attempted to improve on Gardner, however, by highlighting such timely issues as house husbands, single-parent families, unwed mothers, kinky sex, and that hottest of all media topics, date rape.

Another note of modernity is that all Patterson’s female principals play vastly more important roles than Gardner’s women. In DEGREE OF GUILT, the judge and the prosecutor, as well as the defendant and Paget’s assistant, are all ambitious, assertive career women. The greater attention to character development inflates the book to twice the size of a typical Perry Mason mystery and might make some readers feel that Patterson is trying to wring too much significance out of a formulaic plot.

Patterson, a practicing San Francisco attorney, handles his many courtroom scenes with Gardner-like authority. DEGREE OF GUILT is a long-delayed sequel to Patterson’s THE LASKO TANGENT published in 1979.