David Ellis

Author David Ellis, photographed outside Anderson's Bookshop at 5112 Main St., in Downers Grove, Illinois, on Tuesday June 19, 2012. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune / June 17, 2012)

Anyone who has ever fantasized about killing someone couldn't do better in that fantasy world than to hire Jason Kolarich, a savvy, street-smart lawyer who is a product of novelist David Ellis' vivid imagination.


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"The Last Alibi" is Ellis' ninth book on his own (he also has collaborated on two books with that short-chapter master and perennial best-seller James Patterson: last year's "Guilty Wives" and this year's "Mistress"), all of which fall neatly under the crime umbrella. His first, 2001's "Line of Vision," won the 2002 Edgar Allen Poe Award for best first novel. This is the fourth of his books to feature Kolarich, a 35-year-old attorney with a very pragmatic philosophy: "People do dumb things. If they didn't, I wouldn't have a job."

He is in private practice with partner Shauna Tasker. They have known one another since high school, have shared some intimate moments along the way and share the pages of this book, as their voices and perspectives alternate through 113 short, snappy and superbly plotted chapters.

In "Last Alibi" we find Kolarich two years into trying to mend from the car accident that killed his wife and young daughter. He is mending, too, from recent knee surgery, but in the worst possible way: popping OxyContin pills like breath mints. Yes, he's addicted, and it is not a pleasant place to be: "I wake with a start from a dream — dirt in my mouth, insects on my skin, my hands on the railing, trying to hang on but the gravitational pull is too strong — that quickly vaporizes into a mash of nonsense. … I am shivery, shaky, uneasy."

Into his office and life walks an odd character calling himself James Drinker who tells the attorney that he thinks he soon will be the main suspect in the murders of two young women. There is something hinky about Drinker from the start, but it takes a while for Kolarich to realize Drinker's diabolical intentions.

Part of the reason is that the lawyer is being distracted by court reporter Alexa Himmel, who proves an eager enabler for his pill popping and other needs. He says, "I sense it's meaningful to her, that she isn't casual about sex. … I don't want to be either. I want to care about it. I want somebody, or at least something to matter to me again."

Between Drinker and Himmel, Kolarich has his hands more than full as the bodies pile up and the mysteries deepen. There's not much more to tell you without spoiling the plot, which holds together with palpable tension, peppered with secrets, moral conflicts and compelling characters.

It has been an amazement to some — but certainly not the great lawyer/writer Scott Turow — that Ellis has been so prolific while practicing law in the demanding role of special counsel to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. His greatest notoriety on that front was serving as the lead prosecutor of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in his Senate impeachment trial in early 2009. He also is a candidate for judge in the 1st District Appellate Court in Cook County.

The media circus that attended the Blagojevich proceedings has given Ellis a playfully unkind view of the press, as expressed by Kolarich:

"I've read enough media accounts over the years on things I've been involved with … to know that reporters only rarely get the story right, and almost never complete."

"My mention of (a certain criminal) yesterday has turned the media into a pack of howling canines — with all necessary apologies to howling canines."

No hard feelings.

Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.