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Thursday, July 27, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

TESTIMONY

By Scott Turow


Grand Central Publishing, $28, 483 pages

In comparing the legal writers John Grisham and Scott Turow, one is tempted to call Scott Turow “the thinking man’s John Grisham.” But, to quote a famous American, “That would be wrong.”

There are a lot of good lawyer-writers in this country, and, clearly, Mr. Grisham and Mr. Turow are two of the best — and most successful. Mr. Grisham’s 50 books have sold 100 million copies; and Mr. Turow’s 10 books half that number, which is not too shabby for a guy who still practices law (part-time). They both deliver the goods, but to many readers Mr. Turow’s novels contain more, to borrow a lawyer’s word, gravitas.

“At the age of fifty, I had decided to start my life again,” says Bill ten Boom, the narrator-protagonist. “That was far from a conscious plan, but in the next four years I left my home, my marriage, my job, and finally my country.”

Ten Boom, aka “Boom,” lives, works, and practices law in Kindle County, Illinois (read Cook County) or did until deciding to start his life over again. Boom is still contemplating his next move when a friend who is “with the government” (read CIA) makes him one of those he-can’t-refuse offers, and very quickly Boom finds himself in Holland and at The Hague as the chief prosecutor of a horrendous war crime.

Four hundred Roma, or Gypsies, were taken from their Bosnian homes, herded into an old mine shaft, and smothered by an avalanche purposely set off with a hand grenade. Ten years have passed since the alleged crime and suddenly a witness, a Roma man, has come forth claiming to have seen who did it.

Boom’s first task is to interrogate and evaluate the witness, and then present him to the tribunal of three judges of the ICC — International Criminal Court — which is charged with prosecuting crimes against humanity. But very quickly he finds out that hardly anything, or anyone, is what it or they appear to be at first glance.

That includes: the witness, Ferko Rancic; Esma Czarni, Rancic’s Roma lawyer, an intriguing and beautiful woman with whom Boom unwisely begins an affair; and the one and only Atilla Doby, a U.S. Army sergeant major who appears to be male but is not, and whose ability to maneuver men and materiel is unparalleled. Atilla is one of Scott Turow’s most unforgettable creations.

Also playing key roles are: Maj. Gen. Layton Merriwell, a disgraced Army officer who was in charge of the area when the mass killing occurred (read David Petraeus); the fugitive war criminal and mass murderer Laza Kajevic (a barely disguised Radovan Karadzic); and Narawanda Logan, a fey but lovely young lawyer, also connected with the ICC, from whom Boom rents a room. She’s married to an American, but their young marriage is already crumbling. She’s a runner, and soon Boom is joining her; cue the romantic music faintly in the background.

Gooz, a transplanted Australian who’d been a policeman in Belgium and now works for the ICC, is another well-drawn cast member. He’s assigned to Boom as his investigator. The lawyer’s years as first a prosecutor and then a criminal defense lawyer taught him the value of a good investigator, and at first he’s not too impressed, especially when he sees Gooz watching YouTube videos on his office computer. But all that changes after he and the Aussie survive several life-threatening experiences.

Given the author’s history, it comes as no surprise that Mr. Turow is a keen observer of human nature. Of Boom’s oh-so-reserved landlady, he writes, “Nara turned out to be one of those people who was quiet largely because she had never quite figured out the right thing to say. Her remarks were inevitably slightly odd, frequently far more candid than her timid nature would seem to allow.”

The author even turns this lens on his main character, who says, of his former wife: “I never pretended to be as flat-out brilliant as my ex. When she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa as an undergraduate, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. But once she took her university position, Ellen began to exhibit a fierce need to look down on me intellectually. The grim fact was that I bored Ellen, bored her to the point of weariness, and bearing the brunt of my wife’s judgments left me gritting my teeth whenever I walked into the house.”

“Testimony” is fast-paced, overly complicated and occasionally funny, but in this roman a clef the easily recognized real people used as models for fictional characters are not really necessary and can be distracting. However, Scott Turow is first and foremost a storyteller, and that’s what propels the action, that and trying to figure out the truth of the various matters.

Mr. Turow’s latest is another fine book by this very fine writer. It’s a safe bet that a lot of lawyers will be getting “Testimony” for their birthdays.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.


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