Taking the law into his own hands

CATCHING UP WITH... Scott Turow

The verdict is in: After five novels and more celebrity than he cares for, Scott Turow is still thrilled to be a writer.

October 17, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- The man who answers the door in this quiet, suburban neighborhood is one of those dark, driven little men who turn up so often in the law.

Those are Scott Turow's words, actually, used to describe the U.S. attorney who sets his latest book, "Personal Injuries" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), in motion. It's an inside joke, a throw-away line written with a smile for those who will get it. It's not only the physical resemblance between the book's prosecutor, Stan Sennett, and his creator that is striking. Turow was a U.S. attorney once, and he oversaw an undercover investigation, Operation Greylord, that sent a Chicago judge and state attorney general to prison.

But Turow is not Sennett, and Operation Greylord did not inspire the book's Operation Petros. Turow, though, has borrowed liberally from his own life to inform the case, as well as Sennett's personal stake in it. Operation Greylord, he says, was truly black and white, bad guys and good guys, with nothing to divide one's loyalties.

Operation Petros, by contrast, is loaded with the moral and legal ambiguities that continue to fascinate Turow -- and, apparently, millions of readers. This month, in its first week in stores, "Personal Injuries" appeared in the No. 1 slot on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list. "I think, with `The Laws of Our Fathers' [his most recent book], I turned a corner and I'm less afraid of autobiographical material," Turow says, settling down for an interview in the bright, unassuming house he uses as a writing studio. "You don't want to write a roman a clef. You still want to be in control of the material, as opposed to writing `Dear Diary.' But with `The Laws of Our Fathers,' which was truly a personal book, I sort of realized I could go closer to home without violating my own internal rules."

The fact is, Turow's biography is better, certainly happier, than the lives of the lawyers he has documented in five novels.

Twelve years ago, at the age of 38, he published "Presumed Innocent," a commercial and critical success. The story behind the story -- Turow, a former writing instructor at Stanford University, had worked on the book on his daily train commute to the U.S. attorney's office -- became almost as well-known as the best-seller itself. When Turow's second novel, "The Burden of Proof," appeared three years later, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.

The fact that he continued to work at Chicago's Sonnenschein Carlin Nath & Rosenthal as a part-time partner only added to the public's fascination. But Turow, determined to maintain his privacy, did his best to shield his wife and three children from the media. (In fact, he continues to be vigilant about his privacy, asking that the name of his hometown not appear in this article.)

But if Scott Turow reinvigorated the legal thriller form, John Grisham quickly came to own it in the early 1990s, turning out a book a year and reaching an audience 10 times larger than even a No. 1 best-seller like Turow.

Asked about Grisham and the other writers lumped into the legal thriller sub-genre, Turow is diplomatic. "I always tread lightly here," he says. "The truth is, I don't have the same ambitions. "There are many things to admire about John Grisham's work. He has the broadest readership probably of any American novelist working. His books are going to be read by junior high school students, blue-haired ladies in their 80s and everybody in-between. That, I think is very much by design, and I give him credit for that. "There is much about his story-telling that is utterly seamless. But," he pauses, "I obviously tarry longer with character and language. John is far and away the most popular of the lawyer writers, and God bless him for it. When my 12-year-old asked if she could read `Personal Injuries,' I said, `Go ahead and try.' But I doubt she'll be able to."

How does he feel about the very term, legal thriller? "I cringe, I absolutely cringe. And for a while, I resisted it, but by now, the tide had washed away the efforts to write lines in the sand."

Certainly, his latest book is hard to pigeonhole as a legal thriller. The action is driven not by a murder, but by the discovery of a secret bank account, used by personal injury attorney Robbie Feaver -- pronounced, appropriately, "favor." Faced with jail time, the charismatic Feaver agrees to become a confidential informant, under the constant watch of a young, strait-laced FBI woman, Evon Miller.

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