By Phil Mann

Kate Paine, graduate of Harvardís law school and associate at the high-power New York law firm of Samson & Mills, has just been assigned to a lawsuit defending the editor of a menís magazine from a sexual harassment suit. Also on the defense team are the firmís managing partner and a younger partner. The latter, Madeleine Waters, gives Kate a cryptic warning to be careful. Before Kate can ask just what the warning means, Madeleine is found dead, apparently the victim of an incipient serial killer. For Kate, who has never been particularly close to Madeleine, something about the death strikes especially close to home.

The determination of the killerís identity is the centerpiece for Amy Gutmanís debut novel, but much more is going on. Kate still suffers the emotional pain of her law-school breakup. One of her friends is urging her to resume dating and establish something resembling a real life. And there are Kateís equivocal feelings for Justin, the best friend she somehow cannot consider in romantic terms. Against this backdrop, the thriller is more a vehicle to present a jaded (but not necessarily unrealistic) view of associatesí lives in prestigious law firms. Author Gutman should know. A Harvard J.D., she worked in a New York City law firm before turning to fiction.

Gutmanís background serves the novel well. Her depiction of life in a big law firm is credible, and the fictional Samson & Mills is well realized. There are a few missteps, such as the story of the partner who takes an associate to an airport and then to Japan without any prior planning, as if passports and tickets arenít necessary, but Gutman writes with an unmistakable sense of verisimilitude about both the firm and the life of a young woman working for the firm. The picture that emerges is, not surprisingly, not altogether flattering. Associates work insane hours for ungrateful partners, some of whom claim as their own the work of the younger attorneys. For Kate, the job is security from . . . well, largely from herself, from her emotions and friends.

Gutman does a wonderful job of conveying Kateís thoughts and life, from her habit of analyzing almost everything in law-school terms to rising dissatisfaction with the world of Samson & Mills, where associates are less people and more automata. This depiction might be frustrating to the reader at times, for Kate does not always do what most of us without positions in such firms would think the obvious thing. (After she is attacked, Kate puts the firmís interests before her own, even after it is clear the firm considers her interests irrelevant.) But one must defer to Gutman, who knows what life in a firm is like, and Kate strikes me as an accurate representative of the young associate. Moreover, though the book is called a ďlegal thrillerĒ on its jacket, not a character steps into a courtroom in any of the bookís 350 pages. This fact may disappoint some fans of the genre, but it is in keeping with the nature of young associatesí work.

The thriller portion of the novel is, while surely competent, somewhat hackneyed. Indeed, the climax is positively predictable and not entirely plausible. Still, the omnipresent threat and the climate of suspense do sustain the novel, and the realistic portrayal of big-firm life make EQUIVOCAL DEATH eminently readable. Gutmanís first effort gives ample reason to expect a polished sophomore (or, in law-school terms, 2L) effort.