Scott Turow. (Photo: Jeremy Lawson Photography)

 

Scott Turow has been really lucky as an author. Those going to a bookstore to look for something from Mark Twain need only move an eyelash to the left to see Turow’s offerings. At the Barnes & Noble near my office, Turow’s runaway bestseller, “Presumed Innocent,” is spooning “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

But it is more than alphabetical good fortune that explains why lawyer-turned-author Turow has appeared on the cover of Time and sold a book for every person living in the 15 largest cities in the United States. That’s over 30 million.

I’m on the phone with Turow, 68, to talk about his new book “Testimony.” This is Turow’s 11th novel, another in the enormously popular legal thriller genre that he is credited with having birthed 30 years ago with “Presumed Innocent.” But the themes at the heart of most legal thrillers were first published on stone tablets long before Huey Lewis and the News topped the charts. So why did it take so long for writers to take Commandments Six through Ten and throw in lawyers? Turow has an answer.

Turow celebrates another anniversary this year. “One L,” his account of his first year at Harvard Law School, hit the shelves 40 years ago. Needless to say, I wasn’t hanging up without asking Turow about “The Catcher in the Rye” of the legal profession. But despite all of Turow’s success as an author, he hasn’t tossed out every tie in his closet. He is a partner at Dentons in Chicago.

Testimony

“Testimony” (Grand Central Publishing) is the story of Bill ten Boom, an American lawyer whose unusual name is owed to his Dutch roots. Boom, as he prefers to be called, is the former U.S. attorney for Kindle County, the frequent fictional setting for Turow’s novels, and has spent the past 14 years doing white-collar defense work. At age 54, following a divorce, the financially secure Boom decides he’s had enough. He resigns from his firm and plans to follow the sun around the world for a year.

Courtesy of the publisher

But not so fast. As he’s packing his career into boxes, Boom is visited by a law school friend, with an ambiguous government job, who offers him a position as a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC is a war crimes tribunal and work is needed on a case involving the alleged murder of 400 Roma (Gypsies, to use the politically incorrect, but better-known, term) in a refugee camp in Bosnia, a decade after the country’s civil war ended. The refugees were buried alive and the principal suspects are American soldiers, who were stationed nearby serving as NATO forces, or Serbian troops, whose ruthless commander is still alive and on the run. Boom puts his tour of the sun on hold and boards a plane for The Hague.

The investigation into who killed the Roma, which delves into science, military intelligence and various aspects of the Bosnian War and history of the region, takes Boom back and forth between the Netherlands and Bosnia. The details of the two locations are vivid. Turow told me that he made two trips to the Netherlands and one extended trip to Bosnia as part of his research. “Testimony” mixes fiction and historical fact. The author’s website offers readers 12 pages of footnotes and a bibliography to help sort out what’s real and what’s not.

Just the mystery of who killed the Roma is enough to make you read the book walking down the street. And those who fancy themselves as being able to predict the outcome of mysteries have no chance here. But that’s just part of what makes “Testimony” so addictive.

The other is the richly developed characters, something that has long made Turow’s work stand out from many of his peers, who only scratch their characters’ epidermis. Boom’s deep introspection and personal puzzles are as much a part of the narrative as the plot, including discoveries about his Dutch heritage.

It is not an accident that Turow has a gift for talking readers into his characters’ minds. He tells me that his uncle, an important figure in his life, was a psychoanalyst, who began giving him books on the subject at an early age.

In addition to Boom, “Testimony” delivers several other characters who will be remembered long after the book is put away. Most notably is Esma Czarni, a seductive and complex Roma lawyer, working in London, who represents the principal witness in Boom’s case. Despite Boom’s best efforts to resist Czarni’s advances, on account of the conflict of interest, his efforts are as futile as saving the popcorn until the movie starts.

I haven’t even gotten my first question out and already I’m apologizing to Turow. Surely he’s grown tired of answering the question, why Bosnia and The Hague? Did he make a wrong turn in Kindle County, I wonder. Turow laughs. “I can be relatively short about it,” he says, telling me he went to the Hague in 2000 and the American ambassador was kind enough to host a reception for him. She invited a lot of American lawyers who were working at the various international criminal tribunals that operate in the city. “I remember,” Turow says, “standing in a circle of these lawyers, men and women, and them all saying, ‘You gotta write a book about this place. You just wouldn’t believe what goes on here.’ They were talking both about the investigations and the back channel intrigue within the courts.”

Turow jokes that when he’s presented with a “you gotta write a book about this” idea it usually involves people’s divorces, which, he says, are “distressingly like everybody else’s divorce.” He continues, “But in this case I said to myself, ‘Wow, this really is different. I can’t think of anything that’s been written about this—certainly not in the vein that I write in.’”

The Birth of the Modern Legal Thriller

The first legal thriller dates back to 1650, with German lawyer and poet Georg Harsdorffer’s publication of “A Gallery of Horrible Tales of Murder.” (The book was better than the movie.) This information is according to a lengthy article on the history of the genre published in 1998 by University of Texas Law School librarian Marlyn Robinson. Robinson credits Turow as the encouragement for the hundreds of lawyers who subsequently turned out books following his formula.

But why did it take 300-plus years for “Presumed Innocent” to lead to the explosion of legal thrillers? Turow points to the increase in the size of the audience in the post-Watergate era “when Americans really began to tune in to the law in a different way.” Referring to Watergate as “the biggest investigation show that had ever been on television,” Turow says that “people really got hooked on it.” “This,” he says, “paved the way for Americans’ interest in the law.” He also points out that law school applications quadrupled following Watergate. Turow acknowledges that there have always been books about legal cases, such as “Anatomy of a Murder,” but “the vast curiosity about the law was something new and that’s why ‘Presumed Innocent’ seemed to hit a nerve.”

Real Courtrooms

Thanks to Turow’s success with made-up courtrooms he doesn’t need to go into real ones. But the Dentons partner still does. In fact, he tells me that he was in court two days earlier. But he acknowledges that he is “really selective” about what he takes on and looks for things that are new to him.

Turow’s pro bono work involving the death penalty has been widely reported. He worked to secure the freedom of an innocent man who, at one point, had been sentenced to death for the murder of a 10-year-old girl. Turow also served on Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s commission in 2000 that recommended reforms to the state’s capital punishment system.

“I’m waiting for the next great pro bono case to come along,” Turow says. “I know it will. When I get back from my book tour this summer I expect I’ll probably be digging into something new and juicy.”

If Turow sees anyone reading “Testimony” while traveling to the 16 cities on his upcoming tour, he’ll “leave them alone.” He recounts once sitting next to a woman on a plane who was reading one of his books. She never looked at the picture on the back cover and put two and two together. And Turow never said anything to her. He reasons that readers are entitled to have their relationship with the author be private. “So I wouldn’t want to intrude. But it is pretty weird.”

‘One L’ Turns 40

Turow’s 1997 “One L” has achieved cult status among lawyers. In it, Turow tells the story of his first year at Harvard Law School—the pressures, his classmates and faculty, and, most importantly, his own transformative process.

The star of “One L” is Rudolph Perini, Turow’s demanding and caustic contracts professor, whose students live in terror of not being prepared to stand up to his demanding Socratic questioning. Conventional wisdom is that Perini is the portrayal of Turow’s civil procedure professor, Arthur Miller. But Turow has never confirmed this. I tell him that the time has come for him to do so. Come on, it’s been 40 years I say, even the mystery of Deep Throat was solved, and, besides, wouldn’t you like to give me a scoop?

Turow laughs very hard. But despite his enjoyment of the question: “No, you’re not gonna get that scoop.” “Perini,” he says, “like every other character in ‘One L,’ is not based only on one person. There are incidents there that I saw take place in other classrooms. So it would be really unfair to say this is anybody in particular.” He also points to the people involved having some right to privacy.

“One L” culminates with Turow’s unwillingness to share his study group’s civil procedure outline with outsiders, without receiving a quid pro quo, namely, some of their work efforts. But having entered law school believing that education was supposed to be a humane and cooperative experience, Turow finds himself in shock over what had become of himself. He described it as “murder in [his] voice” when announcing his decision and disbelief at the “grasping creature [he] had been reduced to.”

So, of course, I ask Turow if I can have a copy of his civil procedure outline. He laughs and tells me it’s in a box somewhere. “That’s something you’ll have to take up with my heirs.”

Randy Maniloff is an attorney at White and Williams in Philadelphia, where he represents insurers in coverage disputes under a host of policies. He is the co-author of “General Liability Insurance Coverage: Key Issues in Every State” (third edition, National Underwriter) and the publisher of the newsletter and website www.CoverageOpinions.info.