Reviewing a Reviewer

Reviewing a Reviewer

As Interesting as this mystery thriller is, one is left with the question: Why would author Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, a daily book critic for The New York Times, leave the safe house of criticism for the front lines of artistic creation? After all, reading books and making snide comments about them in 900 words or less (no plot or character development required) is infinitely easier than writing a novel. In fact, it is fun.

Mr. Lehmann-Haupt has actually crafted a credible first novel (his previous book was nonfiction: "Me and DiMaggio"). "A Crooked Man" is a political thriller full of intricate twists and turns, where up is often down and bad is good — and vice versa. It is a '90s kind of mystery in which Washington insiders come off badly (sloppy, windy and inept) while the Mafia seems positively benign and efficient.

Pennsylvania Sen. Nick Schlafer is an estranged sort of man. Raised by his grandparents after his mother and father abandoned the family, he and his own teen-age daughter become estranged after she is thrown out of school and appears to adopt an unconventional lifestyle. After her death, apparently caused by a drug overdose, Senator Schlafer is separated from his wife and only sees his young son on occasional weekends at his remote fishing camp in Pennsylvania.

To bring some sanity to his crumbling personal life, the senator goes fly fishing, then introduces a controversial bill to legalize drugs. The proposed legislation is viewed in Congress as a posthumous tribute to the senator's daughter — with about as much chance of passing as a book critic has of writing the great American novel.

As marginal as the bill is, it sets in motion the plot's intricate machinations. Strange things start happening to the senator. Out fishing, he hooks a ventriloquist's dummy, apparently a very esoteric way of threatening his one remaining child. He starts getting persistent calls from Mafioso.

In Washington, mysterious pressure is being applied to his Senate committee: one by one he is losing the votes to get his bill sent to the Senate floor for debate. A full debate is actually all the senator is seeking since even he holds little hope of his bill passing.

Still, even a faint whiff of legalization upsets some very influential people. Who is behind it all? The mob — anxious not to lose its lucrative trade in illegal drugs? Government agencies — afraid to concede turf in the war on drugs?

It is suspenseful and believable only up to a point. The main surprise in this mystery can be seen a mile away - and by this critic, who can hardly ever pick out the villain on TV's "Murder, She Wrote." Some of the smaller plot twists are so surprising as to be too convenient by half.

Mr. Lehmann-Haupt does many of the basic things well: the descriptions, dialogue and character development. It is a good read based on these alone. Unfortunately, he falls down when it comes to the big picture. Still, as one of his literary victims might say in reviewing the reviewer: Not a bad first effort - for a critic.