The Eleventh Hour by Lynn Erickson
(Mira, $5.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-426-7
The Eleventh Hour is a stirring indictment of the death penalty and a plea for this nation to stop its policy of legal murder. What? You say you're looking for an escape from reality, a light-hearted, feel- good romance? Sorry, wrong number. This somber novel is compelling in its own way but the romance is not its strong point.

Jack Devlin has just been convicted of murdering his beautiful, rich wife Allison. The case was pretty clear-cut; Jack's cigarette lighter was found at the Aspen murder site and all other possible suspects had air-tight alibis. Jack had the only motive for murder, Allison's vast wealth, which he was poised to lose in their impending divorce settlement. No one seems to care that Jack was a successful architect who had worked his way up from near-poverty, that he didn't need Allison's money and that he denied committing the crime.

Eve Marchand, hotshot public defender, has made a name for herself by convincing judges nationwide to postpone and overturn death penalties. She is a zealous crusader who has neglected her personal life, namely her relationship with Gary Kapochek, a Denver Broncos assistant coach, to earn the title of "Mistress of Delay." She agrees to take on the penalty phase of Jack's case, but when she meets him she is surprised to find how different he is from most of her clients. Jack is attractive, intelligent, self- contained, and above all, innocent. Eve can sense that fact immediately. And in her tireless quest to save Jack from death, she also finds herself falling in love with him.

The two women who write as Lynn Erickson obviously have very strong feelings about the death penalty, and have researched it thoroughly. Eve's anger at the cruel and unusual punishment and its unjust imposition on poor, minority prisoners comes through loud and clear. As Jack waits on Death Row, I could feel its isolation and the horror of knowing that his life is inexorably being taken away.

But the romance itself is not as effective. Prison just doesn't do it for me as a romantic setting. I could appreciate the way Eve admired Jack's grace under pressure and could certainly understand how Jack could fall for her, but I couldn't involve myself deeply in their joyless relationship. And while Jack is an honorable man, the situation he is in leaves him basically passive and reactive. He is in no position to act heroically, except to protect Eve from her own good intentions when he temporarily escapes from captivity and Eve goes overboard to help him. Even his search to find the murderer is unfulfilling.

Then there's the writing style. For the first half of the novel, I couldn't help thinking of Linda Mowery's column on the joys of category romances, where you can reach your happily-ever-after payoff quickly and efficiently. I love long novels if they are well-written and complex. But the writing in The Eleventh Hour is serviceable at best and tedious at worst. There are too many unnecessary details and mundane conversations. The pace picks up in the second half, but it is tough to keep going until that point. The identity of the true murderer is cleverly hidden until the final pages, but a few loose ends are left hanging.

Recently, a Missouri man was executed despite pleas for clemency that were made because his former lawyer had admitted having a sexual relationship with him. This bizarre life-imitating-art coincidence made reading The Eleventh Hour a little more poignant. A man like Jack Devlin would never, in reality, end up on Death Row, but I was sure glad to see him walk away free at the end. I just wasn't sure that the experience that bound Jack and Eve together as lawyer and client was enough to keep them together forever as lovers.

--Susan Scribner

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