SCOTT TUROW's new book is one of those apparent contradictions in terms, a suspense-thriller which asks to be read more than once. The novel is extravagant in the usual generic ways - with danger, sex and especially money - and full of surprises to the end. Like Turow's bestselling Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof, it is about lawyers, and about law as a paradigm of social beliefs. But the most unusual and plausible aspect of Pleading Guilty is its psychology. Second time around, the pessimism deepens like the coastal shelf in Philip Larkin's poem.
Mr Cormack Malloy is a (mostly) dry drunk, divorced with an adolescent son. His own father was a fireman who regularly brought home more than his pay, handing around smoke-stained loot like a Santa Claus who had picked the wrong chimney. The clash between the father's behaviour and the values of Mack's Catholic mother divided Mack against himself. The mother's boy became a cop, then a lawyer, but his father's son was well prepared for adult life in the chaotic cauldron that is America.
The law firm which, increasingly reluctantly, employs Mack is responsible for administering a dollars 288m payout after an air-crash. A complex set of deals with claimants' lawyers and insurance companies has left an unacknowledged surplus of dollars 20m, more than a quarter of which has somehow been diverted to an anonymous private account in Central America. Mack's bosses want him to find the culprit, and the money. Or do they? The story's excitements come not only from the pursuit, its risky ramifications and its outcome, but from Mack's no less intricate responses to what he finds. He angrily tells a girlfriend: 'I forget the part of the theory . . . which explains why the people the market fucks over are supposed to let the tea party continue for everyone else.' Yet he still gets up to his elbows in jam.
Turow's main characters have always been fully imagined - with real families, troublesome pasts, indefensible habits - and Mack is by far the most complicated yet: perverse, at first sluggish in his responses but in the end ruthless, a man prone to 'doing what I most fear, because otherwise I'm paralysed'. The narrative is sometimes sticky. The fact that Mack tells his own story doesn't explain away a feeling that Turow may be too close to aspects of his material, like the John le Carre of A Perfect Spy. Patterns obtrude, too, especially a running analogy between the law firm and a bent baseball referee. But Turow is still a young and ambitious writer, and Pleading Guilty could be an important turning-point for him.
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