Two years ago, I wrote about some of the novels of Scott Turow, looking in particular at the role of corrupt or compromised judges and sometimes overzealous prosecutors in those books. Since I first read Presumed Innocent around 1988, I’ve felt that his major theme has been the elusiveness, or at any rate the imperfectibility, of justice, and that theme fit the subject of my previous post quite well.
But I felt that there remained a lot to be said about these (for the most part) big, complexly plotted and yet subtly nuanced novels, and I always thought it likely that I’d come back to take another shot at them. As I reread several of them one after the other in the last 10 days, something struck me that I hadn’t really noticed before: that Turow goes to unusually determined lengths to avoid writing the same book twice. Of course, it’s obvious that there’s a lot of variation from book to book, as I’ll discuss below, but it wasn’t till I reread a number of them in a row that I noticed how willed and deliberate — the word that occurred to me was “stubborn” — the author’s commitment to variation was.
I’ve written before about the problem with writing a series of crime novels: the tension between familiarity (so the reader knows where she is) and novelty (to minimize repetition and boredom). Previously in Talk about books I’ve looked at the differing solutions to this problem adopted by Tana French and Michael Dibdin (as well, more obliquely, as the approaches of Kate Atkinson and Sophie Hannah).
Turow’s method of avoiding the problem is, I’ve come to think, so rigorous that, although his crime novels feature a recurring set of characters and are for the most part set in the same midwestern “Tri-Cities” region (and, where they’re not set there, there’s a connection), they can only very loosely be called a “series”.
His first novel is a cleverly and intricately plotted combination of murder mystery and legal thriller. A deputy chief prosecutor, whose long-standing boss is about to fail in his campaign for reelection, goes on trial for the sexually motivated murder of another lawyer in their office. The plot is twisty and extremely satisfying.
The Burden of Proof
Though it starts with the discovery of a dead body, there is no murder in this story. The crimes are for the most part financial. Sandy Stern, the apparently infallible, coolly far-seeing defence lawyer from the first book, is here shown to be much more vulnerable than he had seemed, in various different ways. For one thing, he has a family. And, like many small law firms, his is overly dependent on one money-spinning client. In Sandy’s case, that’s his brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell whose self-serving and unpredictable actions almost lead to Sandy’s being jailed for contempt of court, as well as causing him grief in other ways.
It’s not only small firms like Sandy’s that are vulnerable to overdependence on a single client. Gage & Griswell are a behemoth whose main client is an airline. Some of the airline’s money has gone missing, at the same time as a brilliant but erratic and unstable partner. Mack Malloy, a former cop, recovering alcoholic and out-of-favour partner in the firm is deputed to find the money before the firm has to tell the airline that it’s missing, which would probably lead to the loss of their main client. Mack is cynical and, in spite of his declining billable hours, brilliantly smart. He figures out what everybody’s been up to and what their motives are. He finds the money. But on closer examination it transpires that people’s motives haven’t been quite as dishonourable as Mack thought. There hasn’t been a real villain in this story — not yet. It’s a role that Mack is perfectly equipped to play.
This is a funny, mischievously nasty little story, much lighter in tone than the ones that came before and after it. I think I remember reading somewhere that Turow wrote it while taking a break from his subsequent novel, The Laws of Our Fathers, in which he’d got stuck.
The Laws of Our Fathers
This is Turow’s longest novel and one of his most ambitious. I’ve read it only once, more than 25 years ago, so I’m not going to have much to say about it now. I felt at the time that it was an overambitious failure. (It may be, of course, that I thought it a failure because his earlier novels, different though they were from each other, had led me to expect a repeat of something we’d seen earlier from this author. I intend to reread it to find out.) The story is about repurcussions from the radical counterculture of the 1960s being felt in the 1990s, and I do remember that the plot partly turned on the grotesquely distorting effect that mandatory minimum sentences in drugs cases can have on the administration of justice. Sonny Klonsky conducts a bench trial for murder and at one point, in sheer exasperation, grants a defence motion for a mistrial, to the defence lawyer’s consternation.
Personal Injuries is the other candidate for Turow’s most ambitious novel. This one, in contrast with its predecessor, is a triumph. As I said in my previous post, it concerns a big, complicated investigation by the FBI and the US Attorney into judicial corruption in the State courts. There is a murder but it doesn’t happen until the final chapter. It’s narrated in the first person by George Mason, a lawyer representing Robbie Feaver, himself supposedly a plaintiff’s lawyer who has been caught bribing judges in personal injury cases, and is forced to cooperate with the federal investigation. It emerges that Robbie never actually qualified as a lawyer — he hadn’t sat the examination on Legal Ethics, a subject that had been made compulsory in the wake of Watergate — which raises difficulties both for his credibility as a witness and for his ability to continue in practice while he attempts to record evidence.
As Robbie’s lawyer, George is always on hand when his client is dealing with the FBI or the US Attorney, Stan Sennet. However the operation is strictly need-to-know, so there are many situations that the narrator can’t describe from first-hand observation. For many of these, he relies on much later conversations with an FBI agent whose undercover name is Evon Miller, and who will appear in the later novel Identical. A complicating factor is that Robbie’s wife, Lorraine, is (in her 30s) in the late stages of ALS (motor neurone disease). The possibility that her husband may be serving a long prison sentence by the time she succumbs is one of the factors that Stan Sennet uses to pressure Robbie into cooperating, but he has worse than that up his sleeve. Stan’s unscrupulous actions have various consequences, including the ending of his friendship with George, who had been his best man many years earlier, and had always admired and been rather in awe of Stan.
In the next novel, we get to know one of the corrupt former judges who served a prison sentence as a result of the federal investigation described in the previous one. She’s Gillian Sullivan who was reputed to be an alcoholic, though none of the court staff ever detected the smell of booze on her breath. In Personal Injuries, George Mason is not surprised to hear that she’s one of the targets of the investigation:
Gillian Sullivan was a lush who’d been coming on the bench loaded in the afternoon for at least a decade, and about whom we’d received constant complaints during my term as Bar President. (Personal Injuries, p. 43)
In fact, she was addicted not to alcohol but to heroin, which she smoked (tooted). Rollo Kosic, the bagman for the Chief Judge of Common Law Claims, blackmailed her into accepting bribes having found out her secret from criminal contacts. At the beginning of Reversible Errors she has served her six-year sentence and is drawn into the last-minute death-row appeal of Rommy Gandolph, whom she had sentenced to death after a bench trial nine years earlier.
A former junior colleague of hers in the Prosecuting Attorney’s office, who later appeared before her when she sat in the criminal courts, has been assigned by the Court of Appeals, to make sure that nothing’s been overlooked before Rommy is executed. The lawyer, Arthur Raven, has recently made partner in an upmarket firm, having moved from the prosecutor’s office to private practice a few years before. He’s not entirely thrilled at having been awarded the honour of working long hours for no fee, exacerbating his anxiety, only to face the virtual certainty that his client will be executed at the end of it. As he tells his junior associate, the only thing that can save Rommy, now that all his appeals have been heard and he’s exhausted all potential remedies, is evidence of “actual innocence” that couldn’t have been presented before. It’s a tall order.
But, very rarely, miracles happen. The miracle that exonerates Rommy reveals a truth that is sordid, harsh and unforgiving. In an echo of The Laws of Our Fathers, it turns out that Rommy’s difficulties are partly the consequence of mandatory minimum sentencing. Arthur’s senior partner, Ray Horgan, gives him a well intentioned warning:
“Generally speaking, Arthur,” he said, “you may find that there’s a bit of a drought before your next innocent client. A decade or two.” (Reversible Errors, p. 428)
In the meantime, the story of Arthur Raven and Gillian Sullivan has been developing into a most unlikely romance. That’s kind of a miracle too.
The main narrator here is not a lawyer, but the son of one. Stew Dubinsky is a journalist who has been mentioned in passing in several of the novels and will turn up again in a few more. His father was a member of the JAG Corps during the Second World War and was respected, but Stew learns that he was tried by court martial and imprisoned for helping a spy to escape. There are wartime scenes that reminded me a bit of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. This is another one that I’ve read only once, and I can’t remember enough details to say anything useful about it. I went looking for my hardback copy recently but failed to turn it up. I intend to read it again when I get the chance and may write about it then.
This one is unusually short for Turow at 200 pages, but it gives the reader plenty to chew on. George Mason, the eccentric narrator of Personal Injuries is here at the centre, but seen in the third person. He now sits on the Court of Appeals, chairing a panel of three judges. I’ve written briefly about the main issue and George’s dilemma concerning it in my previous post. The story raises an interesting question, which I’m not going to go into in detail here, about how the appeal court reaches a majority decision where there are separate issues to be considered. I’m not sure I understand why the judges proceed as they do. (If they’d considered the two issues in the appeal separately, one after the other, they’d have found that there were majorities — different majorities to be sure — against the appellants on both of them. Or am I missing something?)
Limitations is a departure from what we’ve encountered before because it’s our first to the Court of Appeals. It concerns a serious crime of violence (rape), but not murder.
Innocent is another one of the novels I discussed in the previous post. As a kind of sequel to Turow’s first novel, it’s less obviously a break from what the author has written before. As in the immediately preceding novel, we’re in the Court of Appeals again, at least to start with, where Rusty Sabich has been Chief Judge for many years. A certain degree of continuity with Presumed Innocent is inevitable, but it rings some changes: Rusty is not quite as innocent as he was in the first book, but he hasn’t learned as much from experience as he probably ought to have done.
Initially, there’s something unsettling about the characters’ names. The victim of a murder, violently killed in her own bedroom, is Dita Kronon. “Dita” is short for Aphrodite, and it’s the only fragment of her given name that she could pronounce as a child. Her father, who survived her by a few years before getting pushed off Mount Olympus, was Zeus Kronon, and she had a brother named Herakles (“Hal”) who, 25 years later, is is convinced that the full circumstances of her killing were not revealed when the lover she had been about to dump, Cassian (“Cass”) Gianis, pleaded guilty to her murder.
But it’s the name of Hal’s head of security that the real puzzle: Evon Miller. Readers of Personal Injuries know that “Evon Miller” is a cover name, the alias of an FBI agent (real name DeDe Kurzweil) who had been placed in Robbie Feaver’s law office to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t commit any further crimes while wearing a wire on behalf of the feds. Had “Evon” somehow come to life? How was that possible?
In fact, the explanation turns out to be straightforward. Having spent several years in Kindle County, winding up the anticorruption operation, Project Petros, Evon eventually left the FBI and decided to stay in the Tri-Cities, getting permission from the Bureau to keep the name by which she’d been known during those years. She’d never been entirely happy as DeDe anyway. “Zeus”, too, is an assumed name: he had been baptized “Zisis” (Identical, p. 40).
Cass, who is being released after serving his 25-year sentence as the story begins, is an identical twin. His brother, Paul, is a successful lawyer and front-running mayoral candidate, till Hal starts to undermine his campaign. Their first names, which come from their two grandfathers, echo Castor and Pollux. Turow tells us in a concluding note (p. 370) about a version of the myth in which Pollux, immortal like his father, begs to be allowed to share his immortality with Castor, who has inherited his mother’s mortality; as a result they take turns in Hades.
Characters regularly remind us and each other of the mythological qualities of the story. Paul’s campaign manager advises him:
“… Elections are about myths, about making them think you’re a god, not a mortal … (Identical, p. 31; ellipsis added)
Hal, secretly monitoring his employees’ email, is compared to “a disinterested god entertained by the foibles of the mortals below” (p. 90). And Tim, the 81-year-old former cop and private investigator that Zeus kept on retainer for years, and who is working with Evon, tells her “Every time somebody falls in love, they create their own mythology to go with it” (p. 148). The remarkable thing is that Turow laid the groundwork for this five books earlier, when Evon’s character was first introduced. As she’s recounting the origin and pronunciation of her forename to Robbie, who doesn’t yet know that it’s her undercover identity, the other FBI agents present recognize “that she was, in the parlance, ‘telling her myth’” (Personal Injuries, p. 25).
In another echo of Personal Injuries, one of the characters, like Robbie in the earlier book, practises law over a period of years without being qualified to do so.
I posted a review of Testimony a few years ago, when I was still doing that sort of thing. As in Ordinary Heroes we’re far from Kindle County, though there’s still a connection. A former US Attorney and criminal defence lawyer in private practice has gone to work for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where he begins an investigation into whether an alleged war crime actually happened. So, once again, Turow is leading us onto (in this case conspicuously) unfamiliar territory which nevertheless has some links to what we have previously been shown.
The Last Trial
The Last Trial puts Sandy Stern centre stage again, somewhere he hasn’t really been since the second novel, The Burden of Proof. He has been widowed again, is now in his mid 80s, has had cancer, and is about to retire, but takes on the demanding — maybe too demanding — case of an old friend, who turns out not to be as admirable as Sandy had been willing to believe. Again, as in The Laws of Our Fathers, Sonny is conducting a
bench trial but this time the offence is very different. There’s a murder charge (which is quickly dismissed, leaving Sandy’s client still facing counts of fraud and insider trading) but it arises out of the manufacture and supply of allegedly lethal medicines rather than a street shooting, as in the earlier novel. So, even though Turow is revisiting old territory, he’s still breaking new ground.
Correction: “bench trial”Sandy’s last trial is before a jury. I don’t know where I got the impression it was a bench trial; maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.
The final novel, so far, is Suspect. I’ve read it once and intend to read it again soon. I’d like to have reread it before I attempt to comment, except to say that once again, it’s a departure. It’s set in a law firm but one that has to hustle for business and is much less prestigious than Sandy’s had become by the time he closed it. Sandy’s granddaughter, Clarice, known as Pinky, works for them as a private investigator.
For Turow to offer the reader such a different experience each time seems to me a brave approach for an author to take. To have followed up the stellar success of Presumed Innocent by sending his publisher the manuscript for The Burden of Proof, and then continuing with Pleading Guilty were acts of extraordinary self-confidence. It’s a self-confidence that has been amply justified in the years since.