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Patterson's disquieting new plot is no walk on the beach

Richard North Patterson is never easy. Sure, you can take his novels to the beach, but they're no mindless, easy reads. They often confront huge international political issues. Even his less ambitious novels have a disquieting, psychological intensity to them.

In short, this Patterson never can be described as a breezy read.

And so it is with "Fall From Grace," one of those novels whose title has both literal and figurative meanings for the narcissistic patriarch of a prominent Martha's Vineyard family.

Best-selling novelist Ben Blaine falls about 90 feet to his death, off a promontory that provided him with many of his favorite moments of solitude.

How he died, of course, isn't clear. Accidental fall? Suicide? Or murder?

And then we find out what a scoundrel he was, leaving no short list of suspects, if indeed he was murdered.

Into this mess steps his estranged son, Adam, the hero of this piece. Adam has been off in Afghanistan working with the natives as an "agricultural consultant" (CIA, anyone?). Adam returns home, to find his mother and brother disinherited, with most of the old man's fortune going to his thirtysomething actress/mistress.

Adam Blaine spends the whole book walking a true tightrope -- trying to protect the financial interests of both his mother and brother; serving as executor of his father's estate; trying to find out how his father died; learning and revealing all kinds of family secrets; mending fences with his old girlfriend; and trying to protect some of the possible suspects, if his father indeed was shoved to his death.

The family secrets keep the reader engaged, although many of the plot twists aren't shockers.

What some readers might find disquieting is the use of flashbacks, which slowly -- almost agonizingly so -- reveal the various plot strands. Patterson, though, gets high marks for creating a clever symmetry with many of the plot twists.

What saves Patterson are his writing and, to a lesser degree, his characters. Especially fascinating is Ben Blaine, described by Patterson as the classic sexual narcissist, who continues to torment people, even from his grave.

One character claims Ben Blaine suffered from a "poverty of spirit."

"Only the admiration of others could slake his hunger. But there was never enough. So he kept reaching for the next achievement -- a woman, a [sailing] race, the accolades of fans or critics -- and whoever stood in his way got hurt."

This is a readable, well-written piece, a cut above some of the cookie-cutter prose that tops our best-seller lists. It's worth a read, especially during our endless summer that had a false start in March.

But it still might be a little top-heavy for the beach.

Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.


Fall From Grace

By Richard North Patterson


276 pages, $26