Just when it was beginning to look impossible, former lawyer Sloan pumps some life into the crowded field of legal thrillers. Not that this is a literary masterpiece: The first-time novelist has an annoying habit of detailing the background of even the most minor characters. But Sloan delivers a satisfyingly tricky plot in a narrative brisk enough to keep readers engaged all the way to the deliberately delayed triumphant courtroom scene. The novel opens in 1962, when Karen Kern has the misfortune to be acquaintance-raped (before the term has even been coined) by a wealthy, good-looking Harvard law student. Kern's uptight mother convinces her to fudge the facts and claim to have been in an automobile accident. She goes against her mother's wishes only once, when she tells her beloved fiancÇ; he backs away, and Kern clams up for good. She drops out of college, moves to Manhattan's Greenwich Village, and manages to make it through the '60s without having sex, even though she hangs around with the artistic residents of a communal apartment. Her rapist (a crudely drawn, heartless SOB) is living in San Francisco and entering politics. In the late '70s, Kern and her friends open an uptown shop selling art and accessories; she befriends a photographer who eventually spies some of her secret, sappy poetry (``The death of a dream/is surrounded by pain'') and invites her to collaborate on a book. Several successful projects and one platonic marriage later, Kern is living in San Francisco; her attacker is running for president. The ending, while clever, will have those of all political beliefs cringing for different reasons, Sloan often gets the proportions wrong in her blend of not-so- subtle social commentary and suspense, but there's no denying this novel's lowest-common-denominator appeal: It reads like a house afire.