BOOK REVIEW / On the run with the takings: Pleading Guilty - Scott Turow: Viking, pounds 15.99

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The Independent Culture
NOT content with bleeding them dry in the courts, lawyers - still top of the demonology pops in America - are making a mint in the bookshops too. Those readers who felt disgusted with themselves (mea culpa, mea culpa) for wasting holiday time on John Grisham's The Firm may feel disinclined to crack open anything by another of those high-flying lawyers turned squillion-selling authors. There's an undercurrent of snobbery here, too: how can a writer whom everybody else but you seems to have read really be any good?

I happily avoided Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof, but if Scott Turow's new one is anything to go by, then it has been my loss. Pleading Guilty bears the hallmarks of the blockbusting legal thriller - portentous title with a hint of moral questionability behind the corporate crispness - and trails an aggressive advertising campaign, so not much change there. Turow lights us through the murky, labyrinthine ways of legal and financial chicanery, drawing us into a treacle-thick plot that mixes embezzlement, conspiracy and high-risk opportunism.

In this twilit world there is no profit in being anything other than inside. It goes like this: Bert Kamin, mercurial lawyer and free spirit at the Kindle County firm of Gage and Griswell, has gone Awol with a booty of dollars 5.6m in tow, sequestered from a fund established to settle a huge air disaster action. Keen to hush up any whisper of scandal, the powers-that-be commission Mack Malloy, an exdrunk and partner on the slide, to go find Kamin and the missing millions.

'This is not an especially pretty story,' confesses Mack, our narrator, and it wouldn't be an especially compelling one were it not for Turow's overriding interest in character. Mack, you see, is a fallen man. Physically, he's not in great shape - his skin has that red, booze-mottled look, 'as if someone took a Brillo pad to my forehead and cheeks'. His heart's worse, 'stomped on, fevered and corrupted, and a brain that boils at night in a ferment of awful dreams'.

Emotionally, he's had the full works: the pious Catholic mother who flayed him with her sharp tongue; the fireman father who shamed the family by pocketing loot from the infernos he was sent to extinguish. Once a policeman, he left the force in disgrace after shopping his partner. Once a husband, his marriage fell apart when his wife left him for another woman. Add to all that a loathsome layabout of a son (neither parent wanted him) and you've got one of the most world-weary creatures in thriller fiction since Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer hauled his sorry ass round the block. 'If I start counting the endeavours in this life at which I've failed,' he says into his tape-recorder, 'I'll burn out the batteries on this thing.' He's not kidding.

Nearing 50, Mack seems to have outlived his usefulness to the firm, kept on as an 'act of enduring sentiment'. This new brief, however, brings out something like the dogged best in him. Inquiring after the errant lawyer down at the Russian Baths he runs up against some fairly hostile vibes and takes away a nasty little rash - all true to form so far.

But then he discovers something nasty in Kamin's refrigerator, and it's not a yogurt past its sell-by date. A close encounter with his ex-partner 'Pigeyes', who is still crazy for vengeance, complicates his investigation even further. Soon enough, Mack is embroiled in a perplexing scrum of fixed basketball games, offshore bank accounts and some fiercely divided loyalties within the firm itself. Indeed, the deeper Mack's involvement in the case, the more evident it becomes that his unsuspected talent for sleuthing is decidedly non grata within the orbit of Gage and Griswell.

Turow is always one step ahead of the reader, but he keeps faith with character as the motor of the novel. (One of the great stupidities of The Firm was the hero's pathetic inability to work out who was bankrolling his glitzy lifestyle. The plot roars ahead, while the characters limp in its wake.) It is the flaws, fatal or otherwise, of Turow's terrific cast that speed the tale to its crisis. Mack himself joins an august tradition of Narrator as Screwed-up Catholic (some may wonder if there's any other kind), pricked by conscience yet spurred to take his own slice of the pie amid all this white-collar piracy. (I loved the image, incidentally, of one exec's office being 'so vast that when I walked in he actually waved.')

Pleading Guilty holds a mirror up to corporate America, and the reflection spells greed. 'So much of life is will,' Mack reflects at one point, and it's not the least part of the book's triumph that Turow has conjured an all-too-plausible impression of characters thinking - and thieving - for themselves.