Sleight of Hand
Phillip Margolin, Harper, 312 pages
Private investigator Dana Cutler returns in “Sleight of Hand,” Phillip Margolin’s best book in years. Deception is prominent, and the villain is truly vile. Charles Benedict is a criminal defense lawyer, amateur magician and cold-blooded killer. Ten years earlier, millionaire Horace Blair persuaded the prosecutor in his driving while intoxicated case to marry him. He also persuaded her to sign a prenuptial agreement that promised her $20 million if she remained faithful for the first 10 years of their marriage.
Two days before the payout, Benedict slips her a date-rape drug and videotapes the deed. When she confronts him and demands the truth, he kills her. Benedict then frames Blair for the crime. Meanwhile, Cutler receives a cryptic offer to investigate the theft of a scepter with origins in the Ottoman Empire. As it takes her across the country, she realizes the pieces don’t fit and she might have been set up.
A magician never reveals his secrets, and like the best prestidigitators, Margolin manipulates readers into believing one thing, then reveals the surprising truth. In “Sleight of Hand,” he has created a legal thriller that’s guaranteed to mislead and shock readers.
The Fever Tree
Jennifer McVeigh, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 432 pages
Jennifer McVeigh’s first novel, “The Fever Tree,” is a lovely one. It’s the story of Frances, who’s forced to abandon her upper-class life in late 19th-century England after her father dies. Left with no viable means of support, Frances travels to South Africa to marry Edwin, an old family friend and physician.
At one point, Frances rages: “I can pin my hair in five different styles; I can paint, embroider, and play the piano; but what else can I do?”
Sound familiar? It’s all quite accessible and tremendously appealing.
McVeigh’s story line isn’t new or compelling, but for some reason, “The Fever Tree” is a page turner. Her prose is well put-together. The South African landscape is vivid, but her characters aren’t particularly deep or complicated. Nor is the plot. There are bad guys and good guys. Bad things happen to good people and vice versa.
The one element that’s unique to this novel is the description of the deceit wrought upon the locals by mine owners in Kimberley who lied about a smallpox outbreak. McVeigh says she was inspired by reading a canvas-bound diary written by a doctor who witnessed the two-year epidemic that killed thousands of Africans.
Perhaps “The Fever Tree” could have risen to “Out of Africa” quality with more research or more realistic, less predictable characters. Instead, it remains what it is – a lovely, but ultimately forgettable, read.