A PATENT LIE, by Paul Goldstein, Doubleday, 295 pages, $24.95

Paul Goldstein, the author, is a Stanford law professor who specializes in intellectual property law. His first book, "Errors and Omissions," prepares the way for "A Patent Lie," a story about the cutthroat world of the biotech industry.

Michael Seeley is a patent litigator with a lot of emotional baggage. After resigning from his huge Manhattan law firm, he moves to Buffalo and opens a small practice and employs a part-time secretary. In that milieu, his obnoxious brother, Leonard, a San Francisco physician, flies in unannounced and tries to persuade him to take a complicated case involving patent infringement on an AIDS vaccine and a Swiss pharmaceutical giant.

It's not exactly appealing to Michael when he learns that the lead lawyer just committed suicide and the trial is only days away. For complicated reasons, Michael agrees to take the case. But when he arrives in San Francisco, he finds evidence of medical conspiracies, stolen research and criminal plots. He suspects murder may be used as a hardball tactic.

Obviously, the case involves more than patent law — for many it becomes a matter of life and death. Worse, it should have been predictable that Michael can't trust his own brother to give him all the knowledge he needs about the case.

Unfortunately, the story moves too slowly because the author is too wedded to legal jargon and too inept in inventing engaging dialogue. It is not clear for a long time just why Michael detests his brother, although it is an important ingredient in the development of the plot.

The characters are also not properly developed, so that the reader cannot easily identify with them and understand the medical and legal issues confronting the court. Unfortunately, this is a common problem for lawyers putting their attention to the writing of so-called legal thrillers. They usually know the law, but they explain it in arcane fashion that has little to do with a stimulating suspense story.

When the language is not legal, it is suddenly simplified into dialogue so stilted that the reader is unconvinced that real people would utter such sentences. A novel about the law has lots of potential, but it can't be reduced to a procedural. The lawyers have to have genuine emotions that spill over in the middle of closing arguments.

Instead, Michael becomes uncomfortably involved with his brother's flirtatious wife, Renata. They are alone with a fire in the fireplace. "A log snapped in the fireplace and there was a hiss and the sharp fragrance of resin." This is the pedestrian introduction to an allegedly tense conversation between Michael and Renata.

"Seely said, 'I need to be going."'

"What are you afraid of?" Her voice trembled.

"This isn't right."

"Because of Leonard?"

"Yes." It was a lie, but there was nothing else he could say.

"So now we know." Her voice was bitter.

"What's that?"

"The question I asked you at dinner. You're someone who'd rather be admired than loved."

"You're my brother's wife, Renata."

And so it goes in a story with promise that becomes instead deadly dull.


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