Spending time with Scott Turow, as rewarding and entertaining as that has been through the years, means spending a great deal of time in courtrooms.
If you have ever been in an actual courtroom observing a trial, you know that courtrooms can be — please forget the truncated fireworks of “Law & Order,” “A Few Good Men” or most any other television or movie legal drama — filled with words so redundant as to drive you to work crossword puzzles during the proceedings.
But Turow, a lawyer by trade and passion that is ongoing — he works pro bono and has focused for years on wrongful convictions and capital punishment reform — makes the most complicated legal matters understandable and even exciting.
His latest sure-to-be-a-bestseller-and-likely-to-be-a-movie-too novel is “The Last Trial” (Grand Central Publishing), featuring that familiar legal mind of Alejandro “Sandy” Stern.
You might remember Stern from most of Turow’s previous books. He first appeared in 1987’s novel, “Presumed Innocent,” the book that not only launched Turow’s career as a novelist but virtually created the genre now known as the “legal thriller.”
He was created to defend Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor accused of committing a murder in a case he is overseeing. The next novel, “The Burden of Proof,” also featured Stern and you’ll find him in roles large and small in most all of Turow’s novels, notably those set in his fictional Kindle County, which bears an unmistakable, welcome resemblance to Chicago and the county of Cook. (Turow is a child of the northern suburbs and currently lives in Evanston.)
It often is hard for some writers to abandon characters, dump them in a trash can. Some fictional characters take on a life of their own and seem to speak and behave as if flesh and blood.
Whatever the case, it is good to have Stern back for a last hurrah, handling the defense of his longtime friend Dr. Kiril Pafko. Like Stern, Pafko is old and an emigre from Argentina. A Nobel Prize winner in medicine for his work on a cancer drug called g-Livia, Pafko stands accused of insider trading through research data manipulation and causing the death of multiple patients who participated in the drug studies.
In addition to their friendship, it was g-Livia that prolonged Stern’s life for a decade after he was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer. He literally believes the medication “a miracle.” He feels that he “owes Kiril Pafko his life” and even though he and his law partner, his daughter Marta, might have some misgivings about Pafko’s innocence, they get to work.
And so are we plunged into the trial and an exploration of various human desires — for sex, money, recognition, revenge — and the price that must be paid for them.
One of the admirable aspects of Turow’s work is that he is no showoff. As literate and smart as anyone in the writing biz, he is not given to fancy literary flourishes but rather devotes his considerable gifts to deep insights about the failings of the flesh.
One focus here is mortality and the ravages of age. Though he turned 71 last month and by all appearances is trim and fit, Turow through his characters has much to say about getting older.
Stern is an old man now, an 85-year-old shouldering the heavy memories of his two wives, Clara, the mother of his children, dead by her hand in 1989, and Helen, gone only two years; the physical toll of years of fighting cancer and a recent car crash which necessitated brain surgery; and the strenuous duties of the courtroom.
As Stern falls asleep one night, Turow writes, he thinks about how “vitality drains away so slowly that there is really no noticing, and yet he feels he has experienced no dimming of the fundamental feeling of being alive. He wonders often, Was I really experiencing more as a child, as a young man? Or was it merely that my legs and arms worked better?
“In his dreams, he still runs like a deer.”
Turow writes like a dream. Obviously having digested piles of information about drug research, data manipulation and insider trading, his courtroom becomes stage for compelling explanations of rules of evidence, the nuances of hearsay and how to conduct effective cross-examination.
There are revelations and surprises aplenty, as Stern discovers the nature of his friend and contemplates his own life and career, realizing that “he has enjoyed spending his life among criminals. He has developed an aesthete’s appreciation for the knavishness, the guile, the selfish cleverness of his clients, appreciating human misbehavior for its miserable creativity.”
He also realizes: “The only thing we could do when it comes to the inner life of others — guess. Donne had declared that no person is an island. He had it exactly wrong.
“We all are.”
The “islands” in this novel are plentiful, complex and arresting. Some will be familiar to Turow’s fans, including Sonia “Sonny” Klonsky, the judge in the trial and the opposing attorneys, all of whom have such deep pre-trial relationships with one another that they would be comfortable at a cocktail party.
Among the most compelling islands” are the women of Kiril’s life. You are unlikely to meet three more formidable women than Kiril’s “harem.” His longtime wife Donatella, “with a regal air,” and his two mistresses, both of whom worked for his company: Innis, who “a few days short of seventy remains striking” and prompts a certain sexual attraction in Stern; and Olga, from whom “force and ambition radiate … with solar intensity.”
These people come to colorful life and though the trial is center stage, it will be Turow’s characters who linger in the mind. Noting that “one of the tragedies of aging (is), appreciating how many good and interesting people have passed by unknown.”
He does not allow such people to pass by his readers.
Stern lives in the company of his granddaughter, who is named Clarice but goes by Pinky and who, after a drugged-out youth, is at 30 prone to vanish for days at a time and can be “a frequently infuriating employee” as a paralegal, assisting Sandy and Marta in the trial. Stern’s “love for his granddaughter exceeds his understanding” but he thinks that she “has a solid future as a private investigator.”
I hope that Turow has more books to write. I am sure he does and though it is presumptuous to suggest future work, he could not go wrong by expanding the character of Pinky, who is an appealingly complicated young woman.
Not my call but I greatly appreciate how he ends his time with Stern. Later in the novel, Stern stands in his office and “thinks suddenly about his career. Was it worth it? But he has no doubt. … It is at heart a very nasty business to accuse, to judge, to punish. But the law, at least, seeks to govern misfortune, to ensure a society’s wrath is not visited at random. In human affairs, reason will never fully triumph; but there is no better cause to champion.”
Rick Kogan writes for the Chicago Tribune.