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Before I Sleep by Rachel Lee
(Warner, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-446-60653-7
***
Carey Justice is a Tampa Bay radio talk show host. Her talk show focuses on legal issues and the American justice system. Five years earlier Carissa Stover (her real name) was a state prosecutor, but her disillusionment with the legal system led to her resignation. She is still haunted by the murder conviction of John William Otis on circumstantial evidence which Carey felt was inadequate to sustain a conviction.

Now the governor has signed the execution order for John Otis, and Carey is forced to confront her feelings.

Seamus Rourke is a police detective who was once her live-in boyfriend. His reticence (his only child's death and his wife's subsequent suicide give him plenty of emotional baggage) led to their break-up, but neither of them ever got over the other. Seamus's father is an alcoholic who in big trouble with the IRS. He shows up at Seamus's doorstep when his shrimp boat is seized.

Her distress over Otis's execution order prompts Carey to contact Seamus. While they're both reluctant to renew their relationship, the old feelings are still simmering and various outside events are conspiring to bring them together. Crimes with haunting connections to the one Otis was convicted of are being committed by someone, and it clearly can't be Otis.

Among the many calls on the subject of the death penalty and on the coming execution Carey receives is one insisting that Otis is not guilty. She is convinced this is no mere crank call. She visits Otis in prison and comes away convinced that he is not guilty. The murder of the lead prosecutor at Otis's trial leads Seamus to believe that the case must be reexamined.

Will the two short remaining weeks be enough for Carey and Seamus to be able to save Otis from the only punishment that can't be undone?

It is an indication of the book's weaknesses that the most sympathetic character is the poor guy on death row. In order to provide grounds for the heroine's reasonable doubts about his guilt, the author has loaded Otis with sensitivity and a horrific personal history. He has emerged from an extremely abusive childhood with the soul of a poet. (The title refers to the final line in Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.") The chapters that focus on John William Otis are among the most moving in the book. His insights into the justice system and the potential for miscarriage of justice demonstrate more sensitivity and understanding than those of Carey, the lawyer and former prosecutor. His biggest regret about being executed is that he'll never see snow.

Carey and Seamus, on the other hand, have more than enough self-pity for several characters.

Seamus at least has experienced truly devastating losses. If you do the math, he got involved with Carey less than two years after the deaths of his wife and child, and it has been five years since they split. For five years he's been subjecting himself to the sound of her "hot honey" voice on radio and feeling sorry for himself. It is long past time for him to get over Carey and to get another girlfriend.

Carey seems to have been in the same state of limbo with lots less justification. She's been volunteering for Legal Aid but has pretty much abandoned her legal career. She's been carrying a torch for Seamus all this time. It takes the governor's signature on the order that will deliver Otis to the electric chair ("Old Sparky") to get her moving again. It's pretty hard to feel much sympathy for a character whose reaction to set-backs is to drop out and stagnate. At least Otis has been writing poetry for the past five years.

It seems pretty obvious that Carey and Seamus were too precipitous in ending their relationship, but five years is a long time to remain uninvolved. With neither one of them making an effort to become involved again, you might wonder just how powerful those old feelings really are. The publisher labels this a romantic suspense, but the romance is not the central theme.

The author has successfully presented the arguments opposing the death penalty. Many readers will find themselves reassessing their attitudes on this controversial subject. In fact, she's more successful developing the philosophical foundation of the story than developing the romance. Some readers may decide that the usual happy ending doesn't concern Carey's and Seamus's future but rather the abolition of capital punishment.

--Lesley Dunlap


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