The Last Trial
By Scott Turow
Grand Central Publishing
The prologue begins with a woman screaming. The lead counsel has collapsed at the defense table. The defendant, a celebrated physician, yells that the elderly attorney has no pulse. The old man's granddaughter runs from the courtroom as prosecutors lift the body onto a table and the doctor rips open the lawyer's shirt. The granddaughter returns with bloodied hand; she's smashed through the glass on the box in the hallway that contains the defibrillator.
It is as dramatic a beginning as any crime novel, courtroom procedural or best-selling thriller could ever conjure up. But then it slows, adopts a different pace. This is a Scott Turow novel after all and he has an important tale to tell, this being (presumably) the last criminal courtroom case defense attorney Alejandro "Sandy" Stern will ever head up.
In Turow’s latest work of fiction The Last Trial, there are legal turns aplenty, several dollops of suspense, character studies ranging from the deep to the sometimes superficial, but most of all a realization that we probably don’t know anyone as well as we thought – and that includes ourselves.
Any reader drawn in by the word “thriller” that has been used to promote this book and who hasn’t read Turow before, may be in for a disappointment. This is in no way a quick beach read, whether on the sands or not. Legal strategies and conclusions are carefully explained, with equal emphasis given to reflections on what it is we not only conclude about another person but also what we are willing to accept – or not – when our assumptions are proven false and it turns out we’ve been lied to. And the lies abound.
Which in no way should be taken to mean that this isn’t an engrossing book – especially not one in which Turow has brought back his favorite recurring character Sandy Stern for another appearance. The elegant Stern first appeared in Turow's first published novel Presumed Innocent (1987) and was the main character in The Burden of Proof (1990) with cameos or mentions in most of Turow's other books.
So we're back in Kindle County, a fictional version of Chicago's Cook County. Stern is now 85, widowed for the second time, both the possessor of some hard-won wisdom and still someone with a lot to learn. He hasn’t quit practicing law, and decides to take on the case of cancer researcher Dr. Kiril Pafko. The doctor is an old friend who stands accused of murder, of hiding the sometimes fatal side effects of the wonder drug he produced and of insider trading — selling off his stock in the drug, making millions in the process, right before word got out of its lethal drawbacks. And, as it turns out, Pafko gave this miracle cancer drug to Stern and it saved the attorney's life.
Determined to take on the case when Pafko asks him to, Stern tells the jury from the start that this will be his last courtroom appearance. Sitting second chair is his daughter Marta, herself in her 60s and ready to retire. Pinky, his granddaughter and a paralegal, is in the background, helping out around his office. Their presence clearly promises that Stern will be making his way through the labyrinth of not only the court case, but the people in his family where successes and disappointments appear in equal measure.
That sense of family and work entanglement extends to Pafko's relationships. He son Lep is among the chief witnesses against his father. Pafko's wife Donatella, a strong woman tired of all of her husband's extramarital adventures — is supportive to a point in court, but makes it clear her loyalties lie with her son first, not her husband. Pafko has worked with and alienated some of his lovers who are now prepared to testify against him.
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There's another ongoing mystery in these pages as Stern is significantly injured in an auto accident. His granddaughter Pinky wants to find out what happened and isn't quite so ready to dismiss this as a random accident.
Throughout the book there's wry humor, as when Pinky, who's been tasked with making sure the rigors of a long airplane flight aren't too much for her grandfather, is so solicitous that the flight attendants conclude that Stern — a legal genius — is mentally incompetent.
Turow's latest continues a world set in the intersection between the legal system and human foibles, weighing how heavily anyone should be judged and what is the correct price an offender should have to pay for mistakes made.
This isn't a story of heroes and villains but of individuals and their actions sometimes heroic and kind, other times petty and dishonest. In a memorable, intelligent and ultimately humane approach, Turow has written another novel that says a lot about lawyers and ultimately about us all. And oh, it should be noted, he does it so well.