My relationship with Scott Turow has unfolded in reverse order. First, I wrote his biography; then, I got to meet and interview him.
The biography was, perhaps more accurately, a profile or a biographical sketch. Its publisher wanted something that would fit into the same format as its series of short lives of Canadian writers. Expanding the premise to cover some bestselling U.S. authors seemed like a good idea.
However, the scale of the book didn't permit travel to Chicago, Turow's home-town, to interview old girlfriends and English teachers. The feasible method of researching it included reading his books, looking at secondary material, and, most importantly, interviewing the author himself.
But Turow refused to be interviewed. He's remained a working lawyer while producing four bestsellers in a lawyer's spare time: an oxymoron. His days are a tightly controlled regime of disciplined work, his time being carefully parcelled out. Even my much scaled-down request for a three or four hour interview was too much, he said. That was a full writing day for him.
So the lore and data for Turow's biography had to come from a hundred or so newspaper and magazine book reviews, and stories about him, that had appeared over the last ten years (although these mostly asked the same obvious questions, and got the same courteous, thoughtful answers over and over again), and from the characters, plots, and minutiae of his books-always a dubious source of biographical information. Fortunately, Turow had also written One L, an account of his first gruelling year at Harvard Law School. It was an honest record of its author's state of mind under the pressures of legal boot camp, and provided invaluable insights.
Later, after more prodding, Turow did agree to a half-hour phone interview. But he's a deliberate speaker, and the time produced only a few useful nuggets and fact-checks. He politely ended the conversation after exactly thirty minutes.
I sent him a copy of the biography. He wrote back enclosing a personal cheque for three more copies: for his mother, his agent, and his publisher. His only comment on the book was to say enigmatically that he was impressed with my long list of sources consulted.
More than a year later, I finally had a chance to meet Turow and to talk to him. He was in town to promote his latest novel, The Laws of Our Fathers. We had an hour's conversation in a hotel lobby lounge.
It was an occasion of odd intimacy. I knew him well, yet incompletely. Our interaction had the familiarity of long acquaintance together with the slightly wary formality of the just-met.
Turow obliquely acknowledged the singularity of our meeting. He was at the end of a long day of interviews and events, which was itself at the end of four weeks of almost constant touring, and he was beat. He told me that he would have cancelled the interview if it had been anyone else but me. He often prefaced his remarks with "Of course, you know this," or "You're probably the only one who knows this besides my family." He never mentioned the biography, but frequently alluded to the special knowledge writing it had conferred on me. (Although this knowledge had come from secondary sources, I had put some things together and drawn some inferences, thanks to being the only person to have read all that material.)
It was most subtle and gratifying flattery. I knew I hadn't written the life of Scott Turow, but maybe I'd managed to stumble onto a version of it that he found acceptable.
Reading The Laws of Our Fathers was an even richer experience of repeated recognitions: mundane for veteran biographers or scholars reading their subject's latest work, but exciting and new for me. On every other page, the connections leaped out: between characters and real people in his life, between plot and real events, between the characters' obsessions and Turow's own.
There's a strong sense of connection and continuity in reading Turow's fiction in any case. Three of his four novels are almost instalments in the lives of some of their characters, many of whom show up in all three books. (Pleading Guilty, his third novel, is the exception.) Sandy Stern, the subtle and reserved defence lawyer in Presumed Innocent, is the widowed protagonist of The Burden of Proof. Sonia Klonsky, a secondary character who has a platonic love affair with Stern in that book, appears as Judge Klonsky, the main character (and the first fully-formed major female character in any Turow novel) in The Laws of Our Fathers. Events in the earlier books are part of the complex background of the later ones.
All four of Turow's novels are situated in the down-and-dirty world of Kindle County, a thinly veiled Chicago and environs. For his fans, Kindle County is becoming one of those imaginary, yet intensely real worlds writers sometimes construct, book by book, whose inhabitants act out the vivid saga of their lives in apparently real time. Someone has published a map of the place, the details having been gleaned from the books.
Turow's novels are all legal thrillers, but also something more. They contain depths, resonances, layers, ambiguities, areas of moral darkness and confusion that have led critics to acknowledge that he "transcends the genre." He has been compared to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
In spite of his mastery of this kind of writing, what Turow has really wanted to do all these years is write a book about the 1960s: the war and its intense and violent politics, and, of course, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. He wrote two unpublished novels about the period when he was an English student and creative writing teacher at Stanford University, before he decided to go to law school. These were unceremoniously rejected by each of the dozens of publishers he sent them to.
Now Turow believes that he's finally done it. The Laws of Our Fathers still has lots of his tried-and-true courtroom drama, and the familiar style and dialogue that is, as one critic said, "as urban as the sound of a jazz saxophone at 2 a.m." But the book flashes back to the sixties as the typically dense and ingenious plot unfolds.
Hardcore, an inner-city gang field-marshal, plea-bargains to tell what he knows about the drive-by shooting of an elderly white woman on a devastated housing project street. The woman was the mother of Nile Eddgar, Hardcore's probation officer. Her assassination was a mistake. The real target was her husband, a state senator, and it was Nile who paid for the hit.
Nile's trial is presided over by Judge Sonia "Sonny" Klonsky, in spite of the fact that she knew the Eddgar family at university in California twenty-five years before. In a series of coincidences that strain our suspension of disbelief, Sonny also knows from the old days Nile's defence lawyer, the former Black Panther Hobie Tuttle. And her ex-boyfriend from California, and Hobie's old friend, Seth Weissman, turns up in court as one of the reporters covering the case.
The novel continues with many of the themes in Turow's previous fiction, which, in turn, reflect his obsessive personal concerns: the importance of the comforts and connections of family; the law as our only bulwark against chaos: "the predominant force in the universe"; the unavoidable war between fathers and sons; the eternal complexity of people and their lives; and crime.
Turow has always been fascinated by crime. His working life as a lawyer has been defined by it: as a prosecutor, and as a defence lawyer specializing in white-collar crime cases. He dreams about crime, he once said. In The Laws of Our Fathers, he meets head-on the unavoidable nexus between crime and race in the U.S. And the future doesn't look good. Seth and Hobie agree on the likelihood of a future in which roving bands of thugs fight against armed militias: race war in its bloodiest and most chaotic form.
With his hard-won veteran's knowledge, Turow is at his best in the trial sequences. As he's done before, he instructs us in the subtleties of legal tactics and procedure. And his characters' harsh vernacular, as well as his re-creation of black hip-hop street dialect, always sounds right.
But the emotional core of The Laws of Our Fathers is the reconstitution of Sonny and Seth's relationship, so long after the tumultuous days of dope, fornication, and fervid resistance to the nasty war.
They have each made the necessary accommodations: all the compromises and losses of middle-age. Sonny's cancer is apparently cured, but its memory remains a haunting memento mori. Seth is still recovering from the slaughter of his young son by a drunk driver. At the end of the novel, Seth's father, a Holocaust survivor, dies. The speeches that Seth and Hobie (who knew the old man well) give at his funeral close the book with a calm and moving threnody of reconciliation.
Turow has always had the ambition to be a first-rank novelist; Saul Bellow was, and remains, one of his models. It was mainly his inability to write at that level (and to get his novels published) that drove him, at the age of twenty-six, to abandon full-time writing and to go to law school. There were other motivations: disenchantment with academic life, and a growing interest in questions about society and its governance that, he felt, only the law could answer.
It turned out to be a good move. He managed to keep his writing persona alive through the distractions of law school and work. And the law gave him what he needed to write publishable books: the knowledge of how ambiguous and uncertain moral categories are; the uses of power; the affliction of corruption and an understanding of its attraction; intimacy with the city's venal and earthy underbelly.
Turow is always asked why he keeps on practising law after achieving wealth and fame as a writer. His answer is always the same: He needs the law in order to write; and he enjoys doing both.
He thinks of himself as a writer first these days, he said recently. But, for better or worse, he's a lawyer too. He thinks that way. He's still drawn to the questions that brought him to the law in the first place.
Turow seems more comfortable now with his status as a genre writer; legal thrillers are what he does. The sixties are out of his system. He's working on a new novel, set in the expanding fictional world of Kindle County. It will once again take up Turow's familiar theme: the legal system's messy intersection with the chaos and corruption of life in the city's gritty mean streets. This time, there will be no detours to California.
Derek Lundy is the author of Scott Turow: Meeting the Enemy (ECW).