Judge and Genre: A Profile of Scott Turow

Kevin Nance

Best-selling novelist Scott Turow had every reason to revere Saul Bellow. Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, Turow had spent his youth in thrall to nineteenth-century European classics—at home with infected tonsils at the age of eleven, he had devoured Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo in a three-day fever dream of reading, and later soaked up most of Dickens—but as a young man he had worked hard to transform himself into a card-carrying modernist. As an aspiring novelist at Amherst College in the late 1960s and, later, as a fellow and lecturer at Stanford University’s Creative Writing Center, Turow charted the firmament of American literary fiction with Bellow as one of his lodestars.

I wanted to write novels that could be read by bus drivers as well as English professors, and enjoyed by both. Both would find them involving, both would be able to take something of substance from them. That, to me, is great art.

He studied Seize the Day, The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, and Herzog with something like Talmudic rigor. His interest in Bellow was deepened, naturally, by the latter’s prominence among writers associated with his hometown, including Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nelson Algren—a pantheon that Turow may have permitted himself to dream of joining one day. Also, both he and Bellow were Jewish, and although Turow was unaware of it, there was even a connection between their families. (He grew up hearing his father referring to “the Bellows,” but didn’t relate those references to the novelist until many years later, when he discovered that Bellow and the elder Turow had gone to high school together in Chicago.)

But by the time Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976—the year after Turow left Stanford to enroll, fatefully, at Harvard Law School—Turow had come to regard the author as the leading exemplar of a literary tradition whose values and assumptions he’d begun to question. One issue was its elitism. Some of Turow’s Stanford professors and colleagues had been fond of quoting Ezra Pound’s dictum that “artists are the antennae of the race.” That rankled Turow, and he shot back that art was about evoking universals, not dividing people. “I said I wanted to write novels that could be read by bus drivers as well as En­glish professors, and enjoyed by both,” Turow, sixty-one, recalls in the offices of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, the Chicago law firm where he has been a partner for the past two decades. “Both would find them involving, both would be able to take something of substance from them. That, to me, is great art.”

The other element of modernism from which Turow recoiled was its disdain for plot. In Bellow’s case, the result was a body of work that, while adept at excavating the deepest caves of human consciousness, was notably static. “Even though the sensibility and the spectacular language in his work were very important to me, I was beginning to say to myself, ‘There’s nothing happening in these books,’” he says. “The plot of every Bellow novel can be summarized in one sentence, and a short one: A guy wanders around. But I came to feel that if Henry James was right—and he is, unquestionably—that you should show, not tell, then what the novel could do for readers had to be anchored in its action. Moses Herzog, with all his communication with the great minds of the past and present—that won’t do it. Lectures on Spinoza won’t do it. The moral evolution of a character is not accomplished in his letters or his speeches. It’s in what he does, in his confrontation with other human beings. Something has to happen.

And so it came to pass that in Turow’s nine novels, from the blockbuster Presumed Innocent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987) to its long-awaited sequel, Innocent, published this month by Grand Central, a multitude of things happen: professional rivalries that lead to abuses of the legal system; bribery and theft associated with public corruption; and various crimes of passion, including illicit affairs, suicide, and murder. And it’s primarily through these events that Turow’s books reveal the interior lives of their interrelated and often recurring characters, including prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, detectives, law clerks, journalists, witnesses, and defendants caught up in proceedings in the courts of Kindle County, a midwestern metropolis very like Chicago.

Between his fiction-writing career’s current bookends, both of which focus on the private and public travails of the prosecutor (and later judge) Rozat “Rusty” Sabich, Turow’s novels include The Burden of Proof (FSG, 1990), an introspective study of defense attorney Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, a master courtroom tactician who nonetheless struggles to come to terms with his wife’s decision to take her own life; Pleading Guilty (FSG, 1993), Turow’s closest brush with the hardboiled tradition of Raymond Chandler, in which the half-comic, half-tragic attorney Mack Malloy investigates the disappearance of one of his law partners and more than five million dollars of a client’s money; and The Laws of Our Fathers (FSG, 1996), Turow’s densest and most experimental novel, partly set in a drug-infested, gang-ridden public housing project and featuring a trial whose major players are connected by their shared history amid the revolutionary tumult of the 1960s. His other major books are Personal Injuries (FSG, 1999), in which a charming scoundrel named Robbie Feaver is forced to expose a series of corrupt judges; Reversible Errors (FSG, 2002), in which defense attorney Arthur Raven works doggedly to exonerate a man he believes was wrongly convicted of murder; Ordinary Heroes (FSG, 2005), set largely away from Kindle County in Europe during World War II; and Limitations (Picador, 2006), a short novel commissioned by and originally serialized in the New York Times.

The books are best known for their crackling courtroom scenes, which grip the reader with the lawyers’ complex and sometimes Machiavellian tactics, the triumphs and setbacks of their legal combat, and the subtle currents of feeling—fear, anger, grim satisfaction, relief, and flashes of ambivalence—that ebb and flow among the various stakeholders. What’s surprising, and far less commented upon, is the way the books just as often subvert and sometimes flatly confound the expectations of readers looking for another nail-biting legal thriller in the mold of works by, say, John Grisham or Richard North Patterson. The stories in about half the books, for example, unfold mostly outside courtrooms. And, unlike most in their genre, Turow’s novels almost never proceed in linear fashion, each page and chapter propelling the reader forward to the next. Instead, they’re often as discursive as Bellow’s, consistently (and sometimes perversely) interrupting their own momentum through the use of multiple narrators, subplots, time frames, and ruminations that bear obliquely or not at all, at least initially, on the main plot. “Scott is a master at getting the reader very involved in the primary story and then pulling away from it,” says Deb Futter, editor in chief at Grand Central and Turow’s editor on Innocent. “At first you think, ‘He’s got to get back to the main story,’ but then you get wrapped up in the secondary story. It’s a juggling act that really works.”

In some cases, these seeming interludes, which typically focus on character relationships, gradually reveal themselves as the novel’s true through-line. In Personal Injuries, for example, the chapters about the developing bond between Robbie and Evon, the undercover agent assigned to monitor him, eventually overshadow the bribery sting that is the novel’s ostensible subject. Something similar happens in Reversible Errors, in which the emotional entanglements between two couples on either side of a legal case come to engage the reader far more than their increasingly frantic attempts to prove a condemned man’s guilt or innocence.

Where other writers in his putative peer group are addicted to cliff-hanger chapter endings in the manner of the movie serials of the 1930s, Turow generally eschews such devices. Instead, he’s a master of the dying fall, passing up the chance to manipulate the reader into turning the page in favor of finishing off a chapter with quiet finality and poignancy. And while what his characters do is important, so is why it’s done—what past events led to it, and how personal histories keep rippling concentrically into the present. The ripples often manifest themselves as a series of ethical quandaries that pose complex, morally ambiguous, ultimately existential questions.

“If someone asked me what kind of fiction Scott writes, I would never say ‘commercial fiction’ and I would never say ‘literary fiction,’ because either way, it just seems too simplistic,” says Gail Hochman, who has been Turow’s agent throughout his fiction-writing career. “He wants an exciting plot that has all the thrills of a roller coaster, but he also wants characters with a lot more layers, more levels, more meaning than in the typical commercial novel. He doesn’t do heroes and villains; he doesn’t do stock characters from central casting.”

In short, if reading the average legal potboiler from the airport bookstall is a task easily accomplished on the redeye to the opposite coast, reading Turow requires significant commitments of time, concentration, imaginative engagement, and human sympathy. But this often goes unacknowledged. Turow is widely hailed as the greatest practitioner of the legal thriller—a genre he was instrumental in popularizing and whose popularity has helped him sell more than thirty million books—but he’s less often credited as a serious writer who, far from jettisoning his literary ambitions in a rush to the bank, combines the modernist pursuit of the revelation of human character with the intricate, sometimes contrapuntal and always immersive narrative structures associated with novels of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

It’s notable that when Presumed Innocent was first published and Turow was asked about its influences, he answered with a single name: Charles Dickens. “At Stanford I don’t think there was much discussion about literary versus popular fiction, because the assumption was that popular fiction was largely trash,” he says now. “At the time, Dickens was one of those writers who had just begun to cross over the divide into the academy. Thirty years earlier, his books were regarded as trash.”

Turow’s brow, normally knitted as he concentrates on his answers, relaxes for a moment, and he allows himself a barely perceptible smile that says, Maybe there’s hope for me yet.