Sticky fingers and a probation officer


Ex-policewoman Nancy Taylor Rosenberg again protests injustice within the criminal justice system in her third novel about female victimization, but this time the protestations are less frequent and less strident.

Instead of targeting sexual abuse, rape, incest, or domestic violence as "issues," and powering her story with her own passions rather than with her characters', Ms. Rosenberg attempts a more natural development of event and action. Earnest thematic statements, typical of her earlier efforts ("Mitigating Circumstances," "Interest of Justice"), do not intrude.

More is the pity that the plot of "First Offense" is so transparent. The key answers of this rough-sex and tough-talk police drama arrive so early that veterans of the genre will read on not to find out whodunit, but why and how.

Still, Ms. Rosenberg's indomitable alter ego, Ann Carlisle, a dedicated probation officer and former cop, turns pursuit of the "how" and "why" into such an amusing, high-energy diversion that reading on is a must.

To get the plot going, Carlisle takes a bullet in the shoulder at the end of a hard day. Several dangerous criminal types could have targeted Ann, known for her work-overs of probationers in lockup, including Jimmy Sawyer, a first-time drug offender assigned to her that afternoon.

But why would Sawyer stop to assist Carlisle as she lies bleeding to death on the sidewalk?

His Good Samaritan act hardly makes sense, until Los Angeles district attorney, Glen Hopkins, Carlisle's new lover, explains: Sawyer had to shoot Ann to prevent her from searching his house and discovering his drug laboratory.

After she recovers, Carlisle does drop in on Sawyer, the miscreant son of a prominent surgeon, and finds not drugs but fingers, five of them floating around in a pickle jar, which she -- yes -- nervously drops. Rather than picking up the sticky fingers and running, Ann plays by the book and retrieves her police buddies, patriarchal Tommy Reed and womanizing Noah Abrams, and a search warrant.

By the time they return, the shattered jar and its contents have been swept away. Carlisle, a widow who lost nearly all reason four years before when her police officer-husband Hank disappeared, begins to look a bit unbalanced.

A campaign to unhinge and thereby discredit Carlisle ensues, and it has its thrilling, unpredictable moments. Our attractive blond heroine fends off attackers and endures taunting phone calls, all the while coping with the lingering aftermath of her violent marriage and her 12-year-old son's false hopes that his father is still alive.

In character and courage, Carlisle towers over Ms. Rosenberg's previous victim/heroines, a vengeful prosecutor and a self-deluding judge. A former investigative probation officer herself, Ms. Rosenberg knows the nature of Ann's work. This authenticity compensates for some of the ludicrous, over-the-top scenes that advance the plot.

Though the prose is sometimes clumsy and the dialogue often mimics hard-boiled detective talk, Ms. Rosenberg carries off her story. The appeal of a victim, especially a woman, who boldly takes the offensive is so great that the author's excesses can be overlooked. With the whodunit easy to determine, it is the what-will-she-do-next? that keeps us engaged.

Ms. Sjoerdsma, a writer and lawyer, lives in Kitty Hawk, N.C.


Title: "First Offense"

Author: Nancy Taylor Rosenberg

Publisher: Dutton

Length, price: 338 pages, $22.95

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