More than any other writer and that includes John Grisham Scott Turow is responsible for the recent popular resurgence of the legal thriller. His 1987 bestseller, Presumed Innocent, is a stylish, hugely assured courtroom drama that set a new standard for the form and opened the door to an endless procession of lawyers-turned-writers, most of them considerably less gifted than Turow.
In the 12 years since, Turow's own career has been marked by his admirable refusal to replicate that initial success. His four subsequent novels, the latest of which is Personal Injuries, have all been radically different from one another; their only common denominator is the author's abiding interest in depicting the lives of the people who serve and represent the law.
Personal Injuries is set in Turow's by-now familiar fictional venue, Kindle County. Its narrator is George Mason, a well-bred, upper-crust defense attorney who, as the novel opens, has just taken on a volatile new client: Robbie Feaver, a slick, fast-talking lawyer who specializes in personal injuries litigation and who now faces indictment for tax evasion and bribery. Given the choice of cooperating with the government or spending several years in prison, Robbie becomes a confidential informant for U.S. Attorney Stan Sennett and agrees to wear a wire to all future meetings with the judges he has paid off, as well as with their various intermediaries and bagmen.
Robbie thus becomes the focal point of a protracted sting operation known as Project Petros, which forms the dramatic centerofthis beautifully constructed story of betrayal, personal responsibility, and difficult sometimes impossible choices. During a period of six months, Robbie and his new masters gradually gather evidence of judicial malfeasance, slowly making their way toward the elusive figure who is the ultimate target of Project Petros: Brendan Tuohey, the corrupt former cop who is now the corrupt presiding judge of the Common Law Claims Division of Kindle County, and who has spent the bulk of his career manipulating the law for his own personal profit.
In spite of the considerable excitement that the slowly unfolding sting operation provides, Personal Injuries is primarily a novel of character and is largely concerned with demonstrating the ways in which very different people change, grow, and reveal themselves under the stress of traumatic events. Through the course of the novel, Turow brings to vivid life an entire gallery of characters, among them the narrator, George Mason, who ends up learning as much about himself and his own personal limits as he does about his client, and Stan Sennett, the United States attorney who orchestrates Petros, and whose implacable, sometimes inhuman, pursuit of justice gives him an ironic resemblance to the very people he is determined to destroy.
But Personal Injuries draws its greatest strength from Turow's empathetic presentation of his two central characters: Robbie Feaver, the hapless hustler caught up in Stan Sennett's schemes, and Evon Miller, the pseudonymous FBI agent assigned to guard him. Evon is a former Olympic athlete who has never outside of her brief career in sports felt at home in the world. Lonely, susceptible to powerful attacks of unfocused longing, and dominated by sexual confusion and a sense of disconnection from the human mainstream, she reaches a believable and moving accommodation with herself during the course of her involvement with Robbie Feaver and his wildly disordered life.
Robbie, by contrast, is a flashy, philandering con man who has built his life on a series of lies and false foundations. But he is also a man capable of kindness, loyalty, and extraordinary fortitude. It's impossible not to be appalled by him at times, and it's equally impossible not to admire his stoic acceptance of a devastating series of losses, both personal and professional. His legal and financial problems, staggering as they are, are overwhelmed by the central fact of his daily life: His wife, Rainey, is being eaten alive by the final stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Turow's unsparing description of the effects of ALS on both its victims and their families is one of the book's most memorable and painful elements.
In the end, it is Robbie whose flawed humanity remains intact in the face of almost unendurable pressures who delivers the novel's most fundamental message: Everyone hurts, to some degree. Everyone is in pain. And the only answer, as Robbie tells Evon, is to "stick with each other, do for each other, and build up the world. Because misery does love company, and another soul's comfort is the only balm for the wounds."
This deceptively simple vision permeates the narrative and accounts for a great deal of its considerable emotional force. Personal Injuries may be David Shenk's most accomplished novel to date, and it is certainly his most moving. It is the work of a man who is both a master of the legal thriller and a natural-born novelist. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.