A horrific tale of rape and sexual abuse committed in a judge's chambers, recounted with plenty of tears and barbecue sauce by journalist/novelist O'Brien (A Dark and Bloody Ground, 1993, etc.). There's a sinisterness to small-town corruption that's even more frightening than the out-and-out bedlam of big-city violence. In his latest true-crime tale, O'Brien investigates the dystopia overseen in Dyersville, Tenn., by brothers David and James Lanier, respectively the town's only judge and district attorney. Incompetent on the bench, Judge Lanier wielded his real power from his soundproof and windowless private chambers. There he assaulted or raped at least a dozen women, then threatened them with dire consequences (loss of custody of their children being his favorite) should they tell anyone. When one humiliated staffer finally complained to the FBI, agent Bill Castleherry meticulously reconstructed the sordid goings-on. Fearing an acquittal on the rape charges--several of the victims were reluctant to testify about acts they considered unmentionable--Lanier was prosecuted under a statute that prevents criminal acts under the ""color of law."" Initially, the novel strategy succeeded, leading to a 25-year prison sentence. But the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction in 1995, ruling that the color of law statute had been misapplied. O'Brien paints heroic portraits of the women involved, who seem to spend most of their time in a state of Southern-inflected hysteria, but he neglects fully to analyze Lanier (who did not respond to requests for an interview). The judge must surely be more riveting in his peculiar pathology than the run-of-the-mill tyrant O'Brien displays here. What does emerge is a charged insight into the abuse of sex and power in the years between Anita Hill and Bob Packwood. At times melodramatic, this is nonetheless an extremely readable account of the creepy world behind one small town's picket fences.