Legal thrillers are the latest surefire hits in Hollywood and beyond. Sue Wilson spoke to one of the genre’s most successful exponents, and an articulate defender of its more objectionable facets, SCOTT TUROW.

alking to Presumed Innocent author Scott Turow about his third novel Pleading Guilty, you’re certainly aware that you’re dealing with a lawyer (Turow is a partner in a Chicago law firm). There’s a lot of potentially damning evidence against the book, but he presents a smoothly plausible case for the defence, offering in mitigation a highly unreliable narrator and the purity of his own motives.

Irish-American ex-cop and (almost) ex-drunk "Mack Malloy, now a lawyer in a big commercial practice, is assigned by his superiors to track down one of the firm’s partners who has gone missing, apparently taking with him $5.6 million from an air-crash settlement fund. As he pursues the man and the money, Malloy uncovers sundry corporate and underworld shenanigans involving murder, an . illegal gambling ring, offshore bank accounts and, it appears, at least one of the senior partners who ordered the investigation. As with Turow’s previous books, the high-powered, high-octane world of big-league legal practice is evoked in compelling detail, and what’s interesting about his approach is his evident understanding of the legal thn'ller as a kind of modem-day Western, where good and evil slug it out in the jungle-law moral wilderness of big business, where heroes ride luxury jets instead of horses, where power and glory are virtually synonymous.

‘lt’s a relatively new landscape for a secular society to deal with perpetual ethical and moral issues,’ Turow says. ‘The law has become, relatively recently, the realm of ultimate arbitration for certain questions that we assumed before were matters of religion, or class values, or regional values. I also think that the popularity of novels about the law reflects an acceptance of the fact that we live in a highly bureaucratised society; the legal novel accepts that as a way of life where the Kafkaesque response was to find it totally threatening, the legal genre stands up and says that there are moral choices green lights and red lights, white hats and black hats -— even in this world.’

Unlike Rusty Sabich and Sandy Stern, the very different but equally upright protagonists of the bestselling Presumed Innocent and its equally popular follow-up, The Burden of Proof, Malloy is a man on the slide - his wife has divorced him, leaving him with their hopelessly delinquent teenage son, life without

booze is a long dull struggle, he dines alone off

TV dinners, he’s disillusioned with his work and his status in the firm is declining fast. Though still in some ways the bluff-talking good guy he once was, he’s a man of eroded principles operating in a world where good equals the greatest profit for the greatest number, and the shifting moral ground on which he operates is what creates many of the novel’s problems. Clearly we’re meant to like him, and the authorial voice comes through strongly in his world-weary analyses of contemporary American commerce; equally clearly, his ultimate course of action is highly reprehensible, but in between these two poles is a large grey area of unpleasant actions and attitudes.

‘I think one of the problems is that as a writer you sometimes forget how much people identify with and therefore want to adore the characters they read about,’ Turow argues. ‘l have had the problem of people identifying Mack’s views with mine I get letters from readers saying they liked the book, but they don’t see how I can commend what he does; I don’t see how I could either, but that does go past some people. The whole book is really written to a very simple theme: money isn’t everything —l truly believe that we in the West have to bear this in mind, in the US in particular. It’s true that a corporate market capitalist economy is a great machine, but it’s not to be uncritically accepted, nor is it to be

Brief encounters

believed that it doesn’t come with great costs - for a man like Mack who has commercialised his soul, who is being forced to do that, there are real costs, there are inherent contradictions, and I mean to suggest that they are painful ones.’ That said, they’re not fatal ones, and not even especially painful in most cases Mack may end up, as Turow puts it, ‘on the road to hell’, but he’s actually a pretty incidental casualty in the book’s larger scheme of things. And does the world really need another male character who describes a black female colleague as possessing a ‘a phenomenal set of headlights, a big black fanny, and an aquiline schnozzola that reports of Semitic adventures in West Africa’, and a surly Mexican he encounters as ‘Mr Third World Anger’? Would we miss the absence of another tough, promiscuous, great-lay female lead who has ‘the talent of all seductive females, to recognise a guy’s fantasies and play along with them, without feeling debased’ but for whom ‘every one-night stand was a piece of Cinderella inside her head, a part of her always hoping that this slipper was going to fit’? Turow’s argument is that such people exist and that authors can’t be expected to write to a politically correct agenda, which is fair enough, but does it mean that they have to write to an cynically reactionary one instead? Pleading Guilty is published by Viking at £15.99

14 The List 8—21 October I993