With Presumed Innocent (1987), a stylish, highly original mystery, and The Burden of Proof (1990), a more serious character study, Scott Turow has established himself as one of America’s leading delineators of the world of the law in popular fiction. Pleading Guilty, a mystery with the emphasis on character, is another riveting account of the duplicities among the lawyers in Center City, Turow’s version of Chicago.
When $5.6 million and one of its partners disappear at the same time, the law firm of Gage & Griswell quietly assigns Mack Malloy, another partner, to locate his friend Bert Kamin. The missing money is part of a settlement account resulting from a suit against the firm’s major client, TransNational Air. If TransNational discovers what has happened, it will fire the firm. Mack’s only lead is that the checks were drawn from a bank in the Central American country of Pico Luan.
Exploring Bert’s hang-outs, Mack learns his friend has been betting on sporting events, apparently in connection with others named Kam Roberts and Archie. Breaking into Bert’s apartment, Mack finds credit cards in Roberts’ name and a corpse in the refrigerator. The investigation is hampered by Mack’s greatest enemy, Gino Dimonte, known as Pigeyes. They worked together when Mack was a policeman, and he admitted that Pigeyes had stolen money from a drug dealer they arrested. Pigeyes is also looking for Bert and catches Mack in several evasions and awkward situations. A lesser enemy, Jake Eiger, senior counsel for TransNational and a former Gage & Griswell partner, placed Bert in charge of the escrow account and wants the whole matter kept quiet to save his job. Mack’s dilemma-to protect his friend and save his own job—becomes complicated by a series of unexpected events.
Finding Bert, Mack learns that the missing body is Archie’s and that Kam Roberts is really Orleans, a college basketball referee with whom Bert is in love. Because Bert has been betting heavily on basketball games and winning, the local mobsters who control illegal gambling are after him. Bert claims, however, to know nothing about the missing TransNational money.
Mack finds a memo in which Jake instructs Bert to pay $5.6 million to something called Litiplex Ltd., turning the checks over to him. Mack realizes that Litiplex has been invented by Jake to steal the money and implicate Bert. He goes to Pico Luan and ingeniously steals the money back by fax.
Mack returns home to discover that Orleans is the son of Glyndora Gaines, staff supervisor in the firm’s accounting department, and that she and Martin Gold, the managing partner, were once lovers. Martin has told Bert to drop out of sight to escape the consequences of his gambling; in Bert’s absence, however, Martin is attempting to blame him for the Litiplex fiasco and to cover up the firm’s culpability.
Mack employs his talent for forgery to create documents implicating Jake further in the conspiracy; he asks Toots Nuccio, a corrupt but powerful lawyer he has saved from disbarment, to get the mob to lay off Bert. Confronted by the evidence, Jake explains that he was doing it all for TransNational, not for himself.
Despite this seemingly convoluted plot, Turow is more concerned with character than with any other element in his novel. He presents a series of vivid portraits to create a sense of distinctive individuals, rather than merely types, who inhabit Gage & Griswell. For the most part, Turow avoids stereotyping his characters; he makes few of them all good or all bad.
Martin Gold, for example, keeps switching from good guy to bad guy and back. He tries to help Glyndora separate her son from Bert less because they have been lovers than because he is “Mr. Fix-It, in charge of the disgruntled, the waylaid, the weak.” He acts less out of compassion than to display his strength, which results from a self-confidence lacking in the other characters. A pragmatist, he supports good causes not merely out of virtue but also because doing so helps attract clients and provides an additional sense of power. Despite his prominence in the Litiplex machinations, Martin realizes that someone must be punished and plans to quit the firm.
While Martin is a man of action, George Washington Thale III is the opposite. Wash is considered a success despite having a career as mediocre as Mack’s. His undeserved legend results from having been “one of those young men who was admired for his bright future and now is forgiven his lapses due to the supposed achievements of his past.” Representative of a class of privilege Mack disdains, Wash resembles “some-body out of Fitzgerald, scion of an...
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