Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Review of "Cloaked in Doubt," a novel by attorney Michael J. Diamonstein, published in The News of Delaware County, 5-16-07

In “Cloaked in Doubt,” local attorney Michael J. Diamondstein heeds the beginner’s advice and writes what he knows best. A former Philadelphia prosecutor, he clearly conveys the dilemmas and pressures facing a young district attorney assigned to a high-profile case, these further compounded by the political landscape and unique character of the City of Brotherly Love.

Cloaked opens on the young and hard-charging Assistant District Attorney Jimmy DiAnno, enjoying the short-lived fame of a successfully prosecuted murder case. His world quickly crumbles when DiAnno learns that his new girlfriend is dead, the Mayor of Philadelphia’s skin lies under her fingernails, and the District Attorney plans to wash her own hands of the matter by passing the case off to him. Around this central plot line, Diamondstein constructs a tightly woven and highly suspenseful narrative, filled with familiar faces and locales, hinging at each point upon the difficult choices faced by his young narrator.

The first of these: Dianno’s been intimately involved with the murder victim. As a result, he can either reveal his connection to the case, which would instantly disqualify him from prosecuting; or he can use his position to seek revenge for his lover’s death, risking the case if the investigation ever uncovers their short relationship. Ignoring professional duty in favor of a vengeful humanity, this choice becomes a dark secret he must keep forever, and is only one in a series of powerful moral dilemmas that propel the plot while jarring the reader.

Unfortunately, Diamondstein trips up his well-constructed plot by making many of the mistakes common to a first time writer. Lacking a clear sense of voice, DiAnno narrates the book in clich├ęs and well-worn phrases, with much of the writing consisting of long series of declarative statements that tell rather than show what occurs.

In this, Diamondstein’s writing only attains a naturalness and clarity in a few passages—during the investigative process and the trial scenes, both familiar territory. Here he writes courtroom scenes that command the reader’s attention enough to feel like a jury member, with a riveting hold that eagerly awaits the defense’s argument, wondering how and if they will remove the prosecution’s certainty of the Mayor’s guilt.

However, the most glaring omission is the sense of any inner life on the part of DiAnno, which becomes especially problematic in an unshown character evolution that must surprise him as much as the reader. Moreover, Diamondstein frames this evolution in a pair of Nietzsche quotes about not staring too long into the abyss (it might stare back), and the advice that when fighting monsters, to take care not to become one. But rather than developing DiAnno along either line, Cloaked shows only the outward decay of alcoholism and isolation, unmirrored by any reflective inner life.

Thankfully enough, none of these stylistic and literary shortcomings impede the flow of Cloaked’s gripping plot. Questions and doubts surround the case, the search for the Mayor’s possible motive exhilarates, and the continually evolving moral status of both DiAnno and his investigation all keep the suspense high and the ending just one more shocking twist to unhinge the reader. In the hands of a seasoned writer like Turow or Grisham, this would’ve been a blockbuster. Diamondstein’s plot is worthy of these two, and hopefully he will keep writing until his prose catches up with his clever imagination.