"Personal Injuries"

Writing at the top of his game in a thriller about the corruption of the courts, the author delves deeper into character than he ever has before.

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Lawyer-turned-writer Scott Turow caught the elusive bubble of fame in 1987 with
the publication of "Presumed Innocent," an intense, taut mystery narrated by a first-person, morally ambiguous attorney. Set in fictional Kindle County, clearly a stand-in for Cook County (where Turow still practices law), that novel practically invented the late 20th century genre of the legal thriller. (John Grisham gets some credit as well, but Grisham -- an earnest, plodding moralist with an acute feel for the American hatred of large law firms and corporations -- has inspired fewer imitators.) After two middling follow-ups, "The Burden of Proof" (1990) and "Pleading Guilty" (1993), Turow again fulfilled his potential with "The Laws of Our Fathers" (1996), a thriller that evoked the streets and straits of the urban ghetto with a darkness that few novelists from outside the ghetto would even attempt.

Now, with "Personal Injuries," again set in his favorite county of the imagination, Turow turns to a new topic: the casual corruption that can infect a big city's court system. The novel marks a watershed for Turow: All the legal twists and turns are still there, but this time the author focuses his fullest attention on character, scene and subplot. His Kindle County is an urban milange of venal court clerks, self-righteous prosecutors, corrupt cops and judges who sit on the bench only because they once knew the right politician. It's an almost Dickensian fictional world -- and indeed, on his Web site Turow calls Dickens a "profound influence" who "created robust characters without giving up his principal mission as a storyteller." (His other major influence, he says, is fellow urban chronicler and Chicagoan Saul Bellow.)

Into this morally compromised environment Turow drops Robbie Feaver, a personal-injury lawyer who has been bribing judges for years. The name is pronounced as in "Do me a favor," Feaver quickly tells us, and that phrase just about sums up his legal career. Cornered at last by prosecutors and the FBI, who persuade him that his only way of avoiding prison is to wear a wire, Feaver makes his tortuous way through a labyrinth of corruption as he and the feds try to trap the elusive leader of the bribery ring. An inveterate womanizer, a nonstop wisecracker and a man with plenty in his past to hide, Feaver still retains his unshakable sense of loyalty and his own style of fidelity to his wife, Lorraine, who is slowly dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

The novel intertwines three tales: of Robbie's adventures as an undercover agent in an extremely elaborate sting; of FBI agent Evon Miller's transformation after she is assigned to keep an eye on him; and of Lorraine's slow, sad deterioration. As the three strands come together toward the end, each character deepens and grows in humanity.

The book doesn't pack much mystery, though. Once the main action is under way and Feaver, wired for sight and sound, has set out among the judges and the courtroom lackeys, there are few surprises. But "Personal Injuries" succeeds as a long look at a world where greed, sloth and lust hold sway despite the efforts of some good men and women.

By Jonathan Groner

Jonathan Groner is an editor at Legal Times in Washington.

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