Richard North Patterson has grown a bit discontented with the praise heaped upon his recent best-selling novels. "'Better than Grisham' has no more or less meaning than 'worse than Updike,'" he says wryly during a phone call to his summer home in Martha's Vineyard.

"I never set out to be the master of the courtroom thriller. I just happen to think the law is a good vehicle for writing about a lot of things. What has come to annoy me a little is the shorthand description 'courtroom dramas.' It reduces what I'm doing to a kind of trick. To the extent that my books work, it's for the same reason that any book works -- because the story, the characters, and the ideas are arresting. What's gratifying to me about No Safe Place is that it just changes the subject entirely."

That's right. Richard North Patterson's arresting new novel -- his best novel yet -- has little to do with the law and even less to do with courtrooms. No Safe Place is about national politics and political campaigns. "For years I've thought about writing a political novel," Patterson says. "The question was always whether I could do the work and have the access that would make it a serious book. I mean a lot of political fiction is awful. Silly stuff. There hasn't been a really strong novel of national politics since Advise and Consent, and that was more than 40 years ago. It's a form I like and one that has fallen on hard times, so in 1995 I decided that I had the time and the wherewithal to take on such a book."

Set in the year 2000, No Safe Place follows the dramatic primary campaign of Kerry Kilcannon, a liberal-leaning U.S. Senator from New Jersey who is challenging the heavily favored sitting Vice President, Dick Mason, for the Democratic presidential nomination. The contest comes down to a crucial primary in California, where Kilcannon's older brother James was assassinated 12 years ago during his own presidential campaign. In the final week of the California campaign, Kilcannon alienates key supporters on issues concerning abortion rights, is stalked by a religious fanatic who has already shot up an abortion clinic on the East Coast, and learns that unknown opponents are peddling damaging allegations about an extramarital affair to the national media.

In less able hands such a plot would yield an overheated potboiler at best. But Patterson's political portrait is wonderfully laid out, thrilling, intelligent, and nuanced. Senator Kilcannon is an immensely appealing central character who carries a heavy emotional debt to his slain older brother. He struggles to tell the truth and remain authentic but is not afraid to play hardball politics and is certainly not infallible on issues of tactics or morality.

Patterson points to the life of Bobby Kennedy as one influence on his portrait of Kerry Kilcannon. "Obviously Kerry isn't Bobby Kennedy, and certainly his relationship with his brother isn't anything like the relationship between President Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. But I'm not sure I would have written Kerry Kilcannon this way if it weren't for the resonance of Bobby Kennedy. Kennedy's spontaneity, reaction to direct experience, impatience, and internal war between the practical politician and the Romantic are elements you see working in Kilcannon. Those moments of spontaneity are really engaging because so many politicians are so robotic, are essentially programmed to follow a plan. The notion that you have somebody who is not only incapable of doing that but who realizes that his salvation lies in refusing to do that is very, very interesting."

Much of the book's suspense depends on the moment-by-moment shifts of campaign strategy as Kilcannon and his staff scramble to deal with threats of scandal. To get these details right, Patterson spent a lot of time with top political strategists from both political parties, including Ron Kaufman and George Stephanopolous. "I explained the story and said 'Okay, you're advising Kerry Kilcannon. What do you tell him?' Essentially we worked out this hypothetical campaign. It was just fascinating."

During his research, Patterson also came to know and admire Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Senator John McCain, "both of whom have an absolute core, an idea of themselves that involves more than looking around a room and seeing how other people feel about them, an idea about themselves that transcends whether they are returned to office or not." Former President George Bush, "a modest man and a real gentleman" taught him about the "incredible focus and competitive drive you need to be President. It's almost like having an extra chromosome."

Says Patterson, "I came away with the sense that the good politicians are better than we know and better than we have a right to expect, given the corrosive nature of the fundraising system that exists, the demands of the office, the absolute loss of privacy, dignity, and even respect. I mean, we all know the system's crummy in a lot of ways, and we all know that it tosses forward a lot of people we wouldn't want to have to dinner, but what we don't appreciate is how good the good ones really are."

Patterson also manages to seamlessly weave into his dramatic narrative some of the most complicated challenges of American national politics -- issues of character, gun violence, abortion, race relations, and the changing role of the media.

In fact the novel, which was completed last October, seems drawn from this morning's headlines, which comes as no surprise to Patterson. "I have a theory that if you get it right, sooner or later it's going to happen. Since I completed the book, we've had the Lewinsky matter, the Birmingham abortion clinic bombing, numerous occurrences of violence with guns, questions of whether the Secret Service can be called upon to testify on what it knows about a candidate's life. All of those issues are floating around in my book. I think they are pretty predictable ones. Many of them flow from the kind of meltdown of standards that has occurred when you have so many different media outlets -- including such non-traditional ones as the tabloids and Internet gossip columns -- competing to define what is and what is not news."

"One of the points I am trying to explore in this book is the basis on which a candidate's private life is reported and the difference between fact and truth. There are a lot of excuses offered for printing things that are based on assumptions that are either unknowable or an enormous stretch. I'm not suggesting that there aren't times when personal conduct isn't a matter of public concern, but I wonder if we haven't gone too far in looking into every corner of a candidate's life. In any event, that's one of the things I really wanted to do with this book -- provoke some thought on these very questions."

Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California.

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