The novel begins in a San Francisco hotel room as Mary, now an NBC journalist, surveys the torn landscape of author Mark Ransom's apartment. Ransom is, or was, America's most eminent writer. As she tells the police, Ransom had uncovered new recorded evidence of an affair between a long-dead starlet and a now-sainted senator (shades of Marilyn Monroe and JFK). While Ransom and Mary were listening to the tapes, she claims, he tried to rape her and she killed him in self-defense. Mary turns to Paget to defend her in what becomes a complex case of missing and conflicting evidence. Old emotions are stirred between the two just as Paget begins to doubt Mary's innocence.
The suspense of Degree of Guilt is grounded in the twists and turns of the trial at the novel's center, but just as compelling is the emerging history of Mary and Paget, and Paget's struggles to keep his son out of the media frenzy surrounding his mother's case. As well, Patterson addresses the deeper ethical questions that face many lawyers as they decide which cases to take and which evidence to use. Capturing archetypal characters and situations, Degree of Guilt becomes a parable of American law. --Patrick O'Kelley