Turow's new novel: presumed terrific

June 03, 1993|By Linnea Lannon | Linnea Lannon,Knight-Ridder News Service

Scott Turow's new novel is more commercial than "Presumed Innocent" and "The Burden of Proof," which is a lot like saying "Aladdin" is more commercial than "Beauty and the Beast." The Chicago lawyer-novelist has sold, what, a couple million books? Close to 12 million, actually. Hard to get more commercial than that.

And yet, the extremely entertaining "Pleading Guilty" is faster-paced, more plot-driven, and less self-consciously introspective than his previous best-sellers. It is something of a departure for Mr. Turow, closer to -- but much better than -- the flood of legal thrillers "Presumed Innocent" inspired.

Get your copy now: This promises to be the big book of the summer.

Mack Malloy, a 50-ish cop-turned-lawyer is the hero of the novel, using the term rather loosely. He is a partner in not particularly good standing at Gage & Griswell, one of Kindle County's premier law firms. G&G handles almost all the work for TransNational Airlines, whose legal counsel, Jake Eiger, is a former G&G partner and childhood friend of Mack's.

For reasons that are eventually revealed, Jake owed Mack big time and for years sent business his way. But not so much lately. Because Mack divorced Jake's cousin? Because Mack had a drinking problem? Because Mack has your basic attitude

problem? Hard to say, but whatever the reason it means Mack's billings continue to decline, which means Mack's earnings continue to decline, which means Mack faces an uncertain future at the firm.

Unless he solves a problem for G&G's oversight committee.

It seems that flamboyant partner Bert Kamin, a top litigator, has disappeared. This has happened before -- disappearing is Bert's way of winding down after a big case -- but this time $5.6 million of TransNational's money has also disappeared. Given that Jake Eiger is under pressure from TN's new CEO to divert the conglomerate's business to other law firms, given how disastrous this would be for G&G since the TN work generates at least 18 percent of the firm's revenues . . . well, wouldn't it be nice to just find Bert and suggest he return -- with the dough?

Obviously, Mack is the one with the skills to find him. Obviously, his partners will be very, very grateful, and given that compensation time is upon the firm, it's a good time to have grateful partners. Of course, it's more than that. As Mack observes, "Anyone who's survived for more than two decades in a law firm or a police department knows better than to say no to the boss. Around here it's team play -- yes, sir, and salute smartly. No way I could refuse."

He doesn't. What he uncovers is, not surprisingly, quite a bit more than he bargained for.

Like lawyer Sandy Stern of "Burden of Proof" and Rusty Sabich, the tiresome protagonist of "Presumed Innocent" (Harrison Ford with the bad haircut in the movie), Mack has a penchant for self-rumination. He is Mr. Turow's most complex character, one we like, if not admire, because he is so forthright about his baser instincts. Of course, Mack is clearly a stand-in for his creator, at least in his thoughts about the world:

Rational self-interest is Carl's creed. He worships at the altar of the free market. The same way Freud thought everything was sex, Pagnucci believes all social interaction, no matter how complex, can be adjusted by finding a way to put a price on it. Urban housing. Education. We need competition and profit motive to make it all work.

It is, I know, quite a theory. Let everybody struggle to get their bucket in the stream and then do what they like with the water they fish out. Some will make steam, some will take a drink, a few fellows or ladies will decide to take a bath. Entrepreneurship will flourish; people will be happy; we'll get all this nifty indispensable stuff like balsamic vinegar and menthol cigarettes. But what kind of ethical social system takes as its fundamental precepts the words 'I' 'me' and 'mine"? Our two-year-olds start like that and we spend the next twenty years trying to teach them there's more than that to life.

"Pleading Guilty" is a neat book, maybe a little too much so. Of course, there's an aggressive but sympathetic female partner who provides the love interest. How convenient that Mack's probing leads him into the orbit of his ex-partner, a cop nicknamed Pigeyes, whom Mack testified against years ago but who wasn't indicted.

But these are minor quibbles. With "Pleading Guilty," Mr. Turow offers the intelligence his fans have come to treasure and enough plot to woo those who don't want to think too deeply about the social contract. He easily proves he is the best in the business.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Pleading Guilty."

Author: Scott Turow.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Length, price: 386 pages, $24.

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