Brief Review


A Crooked Man, by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York: Simon & Schuster, 351 pages, $23.00

In 1991 New York Times book reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt panned Richard Lawrence Miller's The Case for Legalizing Drugs. Miller, he said, "gives aid and comfort to his enemies. What he has written amounts to as good a case against drug legalization as they could have made themselves." This is unfortunate, Lehmann-Haupt said, because "the growing debate over drug legalization is a serious one, with much confusion surrounding the issues and many compelling arguments on either side."

It seems that Lehmann-Haupt has been considering those arguments for a while. The protagonist of his new suspense novel is a Republican senator from Pennsylvania who introduces a bill to legalize drugs. The pro-legalization arguments that appear in A Crooked Man are too sketchy to satisfy opponents of the war on drugs, let alone persuade the skeptical. But the main purpose of the book is presumably to entertain, and in that respect it succeeds. In any case, it is encouraging to see that the topic of drug legalization is by now familiar enough to be relegated to a plot device.

Grief-stricken and separated from his wife in the wake of his teenage daughter's drug-related death, Sen. Nicholas Stationer Schlafer III does not expect his bill will succeed, but he hopes at least to get it to the Senate floor and generate some serious debate. But strange things start to happen, as they usually do in this sort of book. Responding to mysterious pressures, senators who had promised to support the measure start reneging. Schlafer receives several oblique threats, which become more menacing as he investigates the circumstances of his daughter's death.

Schlafer, we are told early on, is a libertarian: "What mattered most to him was that he considered drug legalization a cornerstone of the libertarian political philosophy on which he had run for office and gotten himself elected. If ever there was a case where free-market forces would work to the benefit of people! Just liberate the supply and demand of hard drugs and the price of them would drop like a shot duck, and all the need for crime and violence would disappear."

But aside from this passage and Schlafer's opposition to a Democratic president's big-spending budget, there is no indication of his "libertarian political philosophy." Indeed, in the very next paragraph, we see him conceding that "the state would have to control the supply and channel the profits into educating the public against the use of drugs." Opponents of drug prohibition frequently say this kind of thing, but it is hardly a distinctively libertarian position. Talking to a black congressman who strongly opposes legalization, Schlafer says, "It's not really the free market I'm concerned with." But I thought….

Later, Schlafer meets with a gangster, Lenny Scordia, who claims to like the senator's bill because he wants to go legit and sell drugs legally. Scordia, who shows a surprising interest in libertarian theory, mentions Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Schlafer has never heard of Nozick or the book.

Unconvincing as Schlafer's alleged libertarianism is, the rest of A Crooked Man is credible enough to keep the reader's disbelief suspended most of the time. Lehmann-Haupt tells an absorbing, satisfying story, with the requisite twists and turns. And yes, I did stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish it, but it was a weekend, and I was having trouble sleeping. Unless you are champing at the bit to read a mainstream novel that mentions both drug legalization and "the night-watchman state," you should probably wait for the paperback.