Sixties radicalism and the Holocaust are paralleled in Scott Turow's latest legal thriller. Jasper Rees considers the case for the defence
Chicagoan to the marrow, you can imagine Scott Turow in meaty pinstripes and broad-brimmed fedora, a black case under one arm testifying to an implausible passion for the violin. In a gangster movie he'd be one of the chief hoodlum's hit-men, the trollish one with a slow gait and a business-like line in sadism. It makes absolute sense that Turow senior, a doctor, used to shoot craps in the side alleys of the city's West Side. From the sallow complexion and black shadows under the eyes, you'd guess that his son had never previously come across grass, of either the mowing or the smoking variety.

And yet once upon a time, like every white middle-class American now turning 50, he was a hippy. When Nixon invaded Cambodia and American campuses laid down their pens to protest, Turow mounted the barricades with the rest of his peers and generally did the whole alternative consciousness thing. As a result of his part in peace protests, he lost his right to defer the draft and could have been summoned to 'Nam any minute. If the moment had come, he was all set to seek Canadian refuge.

His fourth novel, The Laws Our the Fathers, is a serious review of the Aquarian Age and its impact on the Nineties. So serious that he told his agents not to dream of movie rights. "I forthrightly predicted to both my agents that it's never going to happen, so don't even worry about it. It lasts on the market all of six hours. The bidding is dizzying. So when it's all over I say, `I don't get it, what is it?' And the answer was the Sixties. And I said, `Why would they think that the Sixties will sell?' Answer: Forrest Gump. Now this is about as far from a Forrest Gumpian view of the Sixties as you can imagine. So go figure."

When the Sixties ended (in about 1974), Turow went to Harvard Law School and began the tortuous ascent to the top of America's most despised profession. It was partly to right the wrongs of the lawyer's public image, partly to scratch a persistent creative itch, that he branched out into fiction. Turow made the attorney into a hero, and Presumed Innocent, adapted by Hollywood and starring Harrison Ford, encouraged a trend among lawyers to partition their working day between legal fiction and legal action. (The name John Grisham should ring a bell here, though actually his legal sharks swim in far shallower waters.) America, educated in the technical lexicon by all those show trials on Court TV, developed a taste for courtroom drama, and the rest of us took our cue. It made sense. Turow's text is that lawyers are basically performers.

Turow, his pockets already bulging from private practice, devoted his mornings to writing thrillers motored by the idea that a liberal lawyer could uncover the iniquities committed on his own doorstep. His readers, in their millions, may well be expecting more of the same from The Laws of Our Fathers. The opening chapter, in which a woman straying on to a housing project is gunned down by a black hit-man, promises consistency. The victim turns out to be the mother of a parole officer, who is actually accused of plotting to waste his father, a state senator. The defence attorney, a black activist made good, is hired by his childhood friend Seth Weissman, who just happens to be not only the accused's ex-babysitter but also the ex-boyfriend of the trial judge, Sonia Konsky.

Confused? Actually you won't be, because Turow promptly whisks us back to Sixties San Francisco to explain how it all began: the campus radicalism, the hedonism, the rejection of the eponymous "laws of our fathers" tabulated in the socially rigid Fifties. The premise of the novel, clumping these characters together in court 25 years on, strained credibility even for the author. "That's about the only element of the novel where I sat there scratching my own chin. Then a case came up in Chicago. A major partner in one of the major law firms was accused of milking the firm. He was represented by one of his law school classmates, and the case lands on the docket of the judge who was the law school classmate to both of them."

The American reviews balked at it too, but otherwise "pretty much sounded like my mother wrote them", which is less improbable than it sounds. Mrs Turow is a quondam writer, though "much more a would-be than a was", says her son. "I've sometimes been a little critical of her for that. She's published one non-fiction book about the children of divorce, a subject she researched but with which she has no first-hand knowledge."

Nor second-hand: while colleagues and characters of Turow's succumb to extra-marital mid-life crises, Turow has notched up a quarter-century of nuptial bliss. The one new enfranchisement delivered by the Sixties he was happy to do without was free-wheeling promiscuity. There's a scene in the novel where Sonny and Seth go to a party, basically an orgy, where they both resist the dangle of temptation. The newlywed Turows actually went to this party. "It was just very confusing, because there was nobody there for whom it made any sense to say, `Well, excuse me, I'm married.' That was a non-sequitur. It was wonderful to be free of convention, but you have to sort these things out. Most people tend to get hurt when their partner sleeps with somebody else. It seems obvious now but it wasn't obvious to Sixties intuition."

From his viewing turret at the fin de siecle, Turow claims that America has failed to sort other things out - principally the racial divide that the Sixties went to work on without any lasting success. His take on the OJ trial, apart from bemoaning the tragi-farcical picture it painted of justice US style, is that "literally black and white can look at these objective facts and not see the same things". And what of the civil action against Simpson'? "Oh, he'll be found liable and he'll end up bankrupt and people in the United States, black and white, will be more angry with each other than with America."

This is easily Turow's most personal and, generically speaking, unpulsating novel yet. In Sonny Klonsky - never mind her sex - he has imagined a decent lawyer far closer to his own pragmatic mindset than any he has previously invented. And his marital problems notwithstanding, Seth (a writer) sits on the cusp of autobiography: his father, like his mother, is a Holocaust survivor, whose tightfistedness seems to be a pathological reaction. That it's easy for a novelist to use the Holocaust as a way of bussing in a bit of gravitas on the cheap is clear from how many are guilty as charged. But in Turow's case the defence looks strong. As an army medical officer, his father worked in Bergen-Belsen, which "had a kind of cataclysmic effect on him".

At the close of the meticulously annotated trial a parallel is drawn, explains Turow, "between the camps in the Holocaust and what's going on in the poor sections of the United States. OK, Seth's father is crazy about money but look what he went through. And not to be able to say the same thing for the poorest Americans is a fatal flaw at the moment. You cannot subject people to inhuman conditions and expect them to behave humanely. That's the bottom line." Spoken like a novelist. But not a lawyern