A practicing attorney and former federal prosecutor, Scott Turow made his debut as a writer of fiction in 1987, and established himself at once on the best-seller list, with Presumed Innocent, as slick and stylish a suspense novel as any published in the 1980’s. His second novel,Burden of Proof (1990) confirmed its author’s status as a writer of best-sellers, while marking a slight but discernible change in direction. Compared to the earlier novel, Burden of Proof was less ingeniously plotted and, for better or worse, more concerned with the emotional lives of its principal characters. Some critics felt that this change did not exploit Turow’s most impressive gifts and that the characters did not justify in vitality or complexity the attention Turow devoted to them. Still, the novel enjoyed brisk sales and seemed, whatever its shortcomings, to confirm Turow’s place as one of the preeminent practitioners of the legal thriller, itself a genre of growing popularity in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
The Laws of Our Fathers will certainly not dislodge Turow from that place. Almost from the moment of its publication, it appeared on the nation’s best-seller lists; it was for the most part favorably, in some cases enthusiastically, reviewed; and, at least in its subject matter, it seems clearly an example of the genre with which Turow has become associated. Yet, once again, Turow seems unwilling to settle for repeating past accomplishments. Even more than in Burden of Proof, Turow seems determined in The Laws of Our Fathers to transcend the genre to which his book at one level clearly belongs and to narrow if not obliterate the gap commonly supposed to exist between genre fiction and serious literature. The effort may be applauded or deplored in itself. The immediate critical question must be whether the author has succeeded in it, and, regrettably, the answer must be negative. If the question becomes whether the author has written a best- seller, on the other hand, the answer is quite different.
The organizing action of The Laws of Our Fathers is, as in most legal thrillers, a trial. June Eddgar, a middle-class white woman of about sixty, has been shot to death in an overwhelmingly black housing project, which is also notoriously a center of gang activity and of drug dealing. The first mystery is what she was doing there. She was, it turns out, the former wife of Loyell Eddgar, a state senator known for his avowal of liberal causes. As the case unfolds, it begins to seem that she was the victim by accident. It was Eddgar himself who was supposed to die on the morning of September 7, 1996. According to the theory developed by the prosecutors assigned to the case, the murder was planned by Nile Eddgar, the son of the intended and of the actual victim.
Presiding in the case is Judge Sonia “Sonny” Klonsky. (Readers ofBurden of Proof will recognize her as a character first encountered in that novel.) Her situation is complicated by the knowledge that in the late 1960’s, Sonny was acquainted with all three of the Eddgars. At that time, Nile was a child, while his parents were committed activists in the cause of revolution. Sonny recognizes that this may indicate she ought to recuse herself, but neither the prosecution nor the defense seems to have any problems with it, and Sonny’s own scruples are not strong enough to compel her to act on them.
Further complications for Sonny arise when she realizes she recognizes the attorney for the defense. He is Hobie Tuttle, another acquaintance from Sonny’s past life as some kind of 1960’s radical, the kind whose radicalism seems curiously wanting in specific content. Hobie, a black man, went through a black separatist phase in those days and was somehow involved in far left political activities. Once again, however, Sonny finds in this situation no adequate reason for withdrawing from the case.
Seth Weissman is not a principal in the case before her, but he too represents problems for Sonny. He is in regular attendance at the trial, and he seems connected, in ways that Sonny tries to figure out, with Hobie. Seth and Hobie, Sonny knows, have been friends since boyhood, but she is not quite sure how Seth fits into the present set of circumstances. It is true that, as Nile’s former babysitter, Seth would take an interest in the trial, but what most concerns Sonny is that Seth is not merely Nile’s former babysitter; he is also Sonny’s former lover. Sonny has a few bad moments with this, but they are not enough to force her off the case, even though she more than once suspects that Hobie and Seth are somehow in league against her.
Seth is on Sonny’s mind, not only because of their past relationship but also because, with the kind of sappy single- mindedness usually associated with hormonally driven adolescents, her middle-aged and balding former lover insists on forcing his attentions on...
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