After a stylish but disappointingly routine shamus caper (The Two Dude Defense), Walker returns to the more ambitious law/crime mixture of A Dime to Dance By--in a long novel that begins brilliantly, loses only a little steam in the middle, but ultimately suffers from unfocused characterization, anticlimactic plotting, and tacked-on melodrama. In a gritty (if essentially familiar) opening section, we're introduced to 18-year-old Bobby O'Berry--a strapping blue-collar kid who finds solace from his miserable home-life in sex with fat classmate Barbara Cochrane, is forced to marry her when she gets pregnant. . .and disappears, presumed drowned, on their wedding night. Then: the action switches to a nouveau-fiche San Francisco suburb, where we meet (among many neurotic others) cocaine-snorting, prestigious lawyer Leigh Rossville, his sexy wife Cathy, and their only slightly less narcissistic friend Chris Cage, 38, a not-so-prestigious lawyer. How will these decadent lives intersect with that of pathetic Bobby O'Berry? That's the primary pull here--as a smart, old Oakland shamus named Owen Cart decides (on a hunch) to investigate the death of an unidentified young man, stabbed through the neck, body dumped in the bushes beside a local highway. The corpse turns out to be runaway Bobby's, of course, and there's considerable fascination as we watch Cart reconstruct Bobby's last hours, step by step, coming up with a surprisingly accurate theory: that he was killed by Leigh and Cathy Rossville when some kinky sex-doings (with Bobby as hired stud) went awry. Things become progressively less compelling, however, in the last 150 pages. Carr persuades Bobby's widow to sue the Rossvilles in a wrongful death action (even though there's been no criminal proceedings whatever). Rossville confesses all to chum Chris Cage, who reluctantly agrees to defend the case. For no discernible reason, sudden emphasis is placed on the gloomy private life (impotence, druggy son) of the judge in the case. And the trial itself, despite intermittent amusement (spacey witnesses, bumbling attorneys), is short on suspense or emotional involvement--especially since attorney Cage, presumably meant to emerge as a quasi-hero (like Chuckie Bishop in A Dime to Dance By), is so stubbornly unengaging. Throughout, in fact, as in much of George V. Higgins' fiction, there's a shortage of sympathetic characters here, with too many half-realized portraits. As a cool, cynical study in social behavior and relative morality, too, the narrative is only half-effective. Still, this is strong, ugly, sharply detailed storytelling overall--and, in its first half, often mesmerizing.