``You never get free. Never.'' That's the despairing statement of Oliver Thirst, the career criminal whose murder on a London street sets this ambitious but flawed first novel in motion. Among the suspects in Thirst's death is James Knight, a barrister so accomplished that he is about to be named a Queen's Counsel. Burdett, who has practiced law in London, renders the details of a trial attorney's life with precision, vigor, and with obvious relish for the peculiar byways of the law. Knight, as a young barrister scrabbling for cases, had managed to save Thirst from a lengthy jail term. Against his better judgment, he is talked into taking a further interest in Thirst, who, having sworn off crime, has enrolled in the university. Both men are cockneys, both are intelligent, both are ``straining every nerve to move up a few strata in British society.'' Knight does rise but Thirst gradually slips from failure to self-pity to a career as a drug dealer catering to the appetites of the trendier echelons of London society. He also manages to seduce Knight's sensual, amoral wife, Daisy, and eventually to marry her. Daisy is arrested for Thirst's murder (he had been an ingeniously abusive husband, and she had been photographed practicing her marksmanship on a shooting range), and Knight comes to her defense. Burdett's trial scenes are terse, often mordantly funny, always convincing. But Thirst never comes to life: He remains more a collection of grievances than a character. And the series of revelations at the climax about Knight's past life and motives seem more baffling than illuminating. Burdett, in attempting to turn our perceptions of the novel's events inside out, only confuses. Still, his unblinking eye--his characters are sketched in with great shrewdness -- and his exact, resonant style make one hope that next time he'll rely less on surprise, more on narrative.