For the JC May 2020
Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is not dead, avid fans of Scott Turow will be relieved to know. And, despite the uncompromising title of Turow’s latest book, The Last Trial, Stern will, like the Lone Ranger, return to ride again in future novels — apparently he will feature hosting a legal podcast in Turow’s next thriller.
Turow, speaking to the JC from lockdown in Naples, Florida, is widely thought of as the man who devised the present-day crime novel, full of meticulous courtroom detail. Hardly surprising from someone who has continued to work as a highly regarded courtroom defence lawyer in his home state of Illinois, while writing 11 widely acclaimed legal fiction books, beginning with the bestseller, Presumed Innocent, in 1987.
The Last Trial, like most of Turow’s books featuring a shifting cast of characters — but always, somewhere, Sandy Stern — is set in the lightly disguised Kindle County, Turow’s fictional version of Chicago, where he was born and brought up.
Turow’s paternal grandparents, the Russian Turowetskys, emigrated to Chicago and did well enough to send his father, David, to medical school, to become an obstetrician. Grandfather Turowetsky, once upon a time, trained to be a chazan — which might account for Turow’s own slightly alternative “career” as a singer with the band the Rock Bottom Remainders, a chaotic collective of novelists (including Stephen King) who sang and played for charity.
Originally, Turow wanted to be a writer and taught creative writing for a time, but — he says, to his parents’ relief — he changed tack and enrolled in Harvard Law School. He graduated and became an assistant US Attorney, prosecuting a variety of high-profile corruption cases; but after the success of Presumed Innocent, (which also became a hit film) featuring the first of Turow’s stock company characters, Rusty Sabich, he switched to defence law.
For nearly all the time he has been working as a novelist, Turow has been a partner in the international law firm, Dentons, a London-based group which took over his Chicago firm, Sonnenchein, Nath and Rosenthal. He reckons to spend about a quarter of his time as a lawyer, the rest in writing — he has famously said that he can be writing a novel, field a call from a client, advise the client, and then return to his novel — even if he has broken off in mid-sentence to take the call.
These days, however, Turow is 71 and describes himself as “a bit superannuated”, since he is now into the 18th month of a 24-month extension to his continued presence at Dentons. Six months from now — though he may retain his licence to practise law in Illinois — he will be a full-time writer.
And it is the very pressing issue of age and what it means that is at the heart of The Last Trial. It is a timely book in many ways because it deals with the minutiae of clinical trials, albeit for cancer treatment rather than coronavirus. Stern is an Argentinian Jew whose family fled Germany in the early 1930s in the face of rising antisemitism and who, we learned in a previous novel, is suffering from cancer.
And the doctor who treated him — in whose defence Stern is making his last, bravura appearance in court — is Kiril Pafko, also Argentinian, though it’s not clear whether he, too, is a Jewish émigré. His family, we learn, left Slovakia in 1919, so it is possible. What he is, is 78 to Stern’s 85 years of age, a Nobel Prizewinner in medicine, and — apparently — irresistible to women.
Pafko is shockingly on trial for murder — as well as fraud and insider trading. He is accused of having falsified the results of the “wonder” cancer drug which his company has developed, making financial capital on the back of the apparently misleading results, and faces the murder charge because some people in Pafko’s clinical trial have died while taking the drug, g-Livia. (Needless to say, there is no such drug, although the complex process of clinical trials and approval for the drug to go onto the market is scrupulously portrayed).
It’s a family affair in this fictional court. Stern’s co-counsel is his daughter Marta, in her late 50s and desperate to retire — unlike Stern, who, were it not for his health, you suspect, would happily go on lawyering for ever. And then there’s his granddaughter, Pinky, a paralegal of 29, who even now is going to be the lead character in Turow’s next book, with Stern himself pottering helpfully in the background.
Pinky, complete with Goth nose-ring, has had a chequered career: her early life, Turow writes, was punctuated by a series of court appearances for drug offences, each time defended by her grandfather.
Turow is having fun “projecting myself backwards” as he writes this young woman, though he has tried to avoid consulting his three children and five grandchildren for Pinky’s language. “I think they might be critical readers”, he drawls, adding that his youngest daughter is herself a writer, “so she’ll probably be the most merciful in her commentary”.
Turow is amused by questions about whether Rusty Sabich — memorably played by Harrison Ford in the film of Presumed Innocent — or Sandy Stern is his alter ego. “I don’t know if you ever really write from the point of view of a character that you don’t take, at least in part, into yourself, so that you can feel how the world looks to that person. I certainly feel enormous affection for Sandy Stern, I can’t pretend that I don’t — and I do see Rusty a little more objectively.
“The other character whom I wrote about, with the same sort of emotional affinity, is Sonia Klonsky, who appears in this book as the judge, but who was centre stage years ago in The Laws of Our Fathers. They are all, in their different ways, very close to my own sensibility. Stern is a great lawyer. I only wish I was that good. He manages to put into practice without any reflection what I know you can’t always summon in the courtroom”. How enjoyable for Turow to endow Stern with zinging comebacks in his courtroom appearances.
The Last Trial, for Turow, is a happy collusion of his own previous interest in “big pharma” and a plot device featuring Stern in a previous novel, Innocent.
“For reasons I can’t remember, he was suffering from advanced lung cancer, and tried the case in suits that swam on him as if he were a clown, and with a terrible rash which was an adverse reaction to one of the forms of chemotherapy he had taken”.
After Innocent was published, readers wrote to him and begged him not to kill his character off. He didn’t want to, and in his last novel , described him as “living in the alternate universe of cancer remission”.
That got him thinking. “What would account for him being in such good shape?” Turow began to explore the world of pharmaceutical research and then wondered who Stern’s client might be for the novel. In his own world, he says, he deals with extremely prominent people who are “suddenly brought low” by criminal accusations made against them, “so I wanted Kiril to be a person of significance, and someone with whom Stern had an affinity”.
He recognises the timeliness of The Last Trial as it asks more and more questions about the so-called “magic bullet” drug, and draws a parallel with the global search for a vaccine to combat the coronavirus.
“People want to know, why can’t they just put a vaccine out there on the market? The [fictional] example of g-Livia stands to answer. Yes, it does help a large number of cancer sufferers. But you would want them to know in advance that there’s a chance that they will drop dead after a year, from this powerful allergic reaction. This is at the heart of the drug approval process, how much testing do you have to do to find out what the consequences are of taking a medication? There’s a moral, legal, and ethical question here. You can’t just feed people hope”.
Turow’s particular genius —as rolled out through all his books — is to twist and turn his plots, so that even an apparent courtroom victory and a successful defence is not the whole story. “All fiction”, he opines, “is the corollary to the golden rule. You can best do unto others as you would have them do unto you —if you can understand what it’s like to be ‘the other’. In fiction, of all kinds, we learn what it’s like to walk through the world in somebody else’s shoes”.
‘The Last Trial ‘by Scott Turow is published by Mantle Books on May 28