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If the first two volumes of John Hemry's Paul Sinclair series of military legal dramas derived their strength from their level of intellectual satisfaction, more than — say — their visceral qualities, in Rule of Evidence Hemry makes up the deficiency and goes right for your solar plexus. Not only is this emotionally grinding storytelling, but Hemry has quite unexpectedly proven himself able to pull this sort of thing off without resorting to easy melodramatic button-mashing. Though an abruptly handled climax prevents Rule of Evidence from being the best Sinclair novel to date, it misses that mark only by the narrowest of margins. This is still one hell of a series, and if you haven't gotten aboard after all my raving, what are you thinking!?

Rule of Evidence opens with a politically sticky situation afoot. The South Asian Alliance, filling in the role of "enemy of the free world" for the 22nd century, are flexing their muscles, and many anticipate war. The US Navy joins with its allies in some exercises designed mainly as a show of strength and solidarity the SASAL cannot miss. (In my review of the series' first volume, A Just Determination, I hoped Hemry would deal with the interesting topic of how nationalism could be exported into space, and here he acknowledges the strangeness of it without addressing it as a major theme.) However, on one of these exercises, something goes horribly awry. The Maury — the ship on which Paul's girlfriend, Lt. Junior Grade Jen Shen, serves as an engineering officer — is nearly blown to smithereens by some horrible internal malfunction. Over sixty of her crew are killed, and if that weren't traumatic enough, Jen finds herself under arrest and charged with sabotaging the vessel.

This is impossible, of course, but things only seem more hopeless for Jen when the prosecutor turns out to be the woman who helped Paul nail the irresponsible slacker whose ineptitude caused the deadly engineering fire in Burden of Proof. Commander Carr is a tough prosecutor, and while there's no smoking gun that points to Jen's culpability, there are experts willing to testify that only the direct actions of a knowledgable officer could have caused the disaster. And Jen, whose lucky survival is already being viewed in a dubious light, is just such a skilled officer. After all, the Maury even had a spiffy new automated system, nicknamed SEERS, that was specifically designed to render such a deadly incident impossible through pure mechanical failure or computer malfunction...

A mystery needs a bulletproof plot to work. When you know all along in the back of your mind who or what was really responsible for a crime when the accused is clearly innocent, a mystery writer runs the risk of leaving his suspense gut-shot. Hemry cannily avoids this problem by putting Jen in a nasty Catch-22. We know she couldn't and wouldn't have done it, we know that SEERS had to have screwed up somehow. But with the part of the Maury that contained SEERS floating through space in a zillion pieces, how to prove it? And with one credible witness after another testifying to the impossibility of the destruction being caused by anything other than deliberate human agency, how can Jen possibly exonerate herself? Meanwhile, Paul is starting to feel like the Navy, an institution he loves and to which he's dedicated his life and service, is rotten with corruption and guilty of the cruelest betrayal. It's rough when your adversary wears the same uniform as you.

So for the most part, Rule of Evidence isn't so much a whodunnit or whatdunnit as it is the story of a looming miscarriage of justice, and how being caught up in such a thing so helplessly can threaten your most deeply cherished values and most trusted relationships. On that score, the novel is a humdinger that'll put you in the swell position of being both incapable of putting it down and nervous to proceed.

But I have an issue with the ending. Not to give away a spoiler, but we know all along that the climax is going to hinge on a revelation — and when it comes, it comes too neatly. It isn't, thank goodness, anything like a Perry Mason moment, but it would have been a bit more plausible had it had a more gradual setup.

The Paul Sinclair series remains at the top of my list of Great SF Books You Aren't Reading Right Now, and I suggest you reconsider that habit. You'll find them some of the smartest, and, with this third volume, warmest stories in the genre right now. They go beyond the clichés of military fiction, and get straight to the heart of the matter. Beneath all its formality and discipline and heirarchy, being in the service isn't (or shouldn't be) about flag-waving jingoism or heroically walking the valley of the shadow of death, ours but to do or die, blah blah blah. It's about the people you serve with, your crew, your team, your platoon, your buddies, the ones you fight with and for and whom you love. The heart of the matter is human.

Followed by Against All Enemies.