David Rosenfelt’s second legal thriller, following Open and Shut (2002), again focuses on Andy Carpenter. The Paterson, New Jersey, lawyer is $22 million richer following his father’s death and can be choosy about the cases he takes. After Alex Dorsey, a corrupt police lieutenant, is murdered, a sleazy stranger comes to Andy’s office to confess to the crime. Andy rejects him as a client, but when a drug dealer is arrested, the attorney feels compelled to step in. Andy does not realize until too late that he and Laurie Collins, ex-cop, private investigator, and Andy’s lover, are being set up. A longtime enemy of Dorsey, Laurie is soon charged with his murder. But is Dorsey really dead, and why is the FBI so uncooperative?
First Degree has a few clever twists but also has several holes in its narrative. A suggestion by Dorsey’s widow that Andy trace the money the cop had accumulated leads to a colleague’s murder only for the question of the dirty money to be dropped abruptly. A subplot about a Green Beret unit from the Vietnam War is clichéd. Rosenfelt also spends too much time rehashing Andy’s Open and Shut case.
Other than a delightful harangue about the mysterious lure of the Jersey Shore, there is surprisingly little local favor, especially compared to New Jersey mystery writers like Harlan Coben and Janet Evanovich. Why set a novel in a decaying yet distinctive setting like Paterson and make it so anonymous? Then there is Andy himself, more like an immature fraternity boy than a respected lawyer. What is meant to be charming is too often irritating.