By Tom De Haven
October 25, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Laws of Our Fathers

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From the author of Presumed Innocent and Pleading Guilty, you expect an authentically rendered criminal trial fraught with dirty politics and a large cast of well-drawn characters. Scott Turow’s The Laws of Our Fathers features all of that, but it also has an ethical vision and historical range that’s completely new. While the novel could have used some pruning, it’s clearly Turow’s best book — a superb courtroom drama whose major players, now all middle-aged, forged their interlocking destinies as alienated college students during the Vietnam era.

In Kindle County (Turow’s imaginary Midwestern stomping ground), Judge Sonia ”Sonny” Klonsky is outmaneuvered by a defense attorney into agreeing to a bench trial for his client. In the absence of a jury, Sonny will have to decide the guilt or innocence of Nile Eddgar, a probation officer accused of conspiring to kill his own mother. What makes the whole business particularly treacherous is that Sonny knew the accused in California two and a half decades ago, when he was a 6-year-old child; she also knew, and disliked, the murder victim.

Adding to the ironies, and to Sonny’s feelings of unease, Eddgar’s lawyer also turns out to be a significant figure from her past, as does the nationally syndicated columnist who suddenly appears in her courtroom to cover the trial. Hobie Tuttle, now a flamboyant Johnnie Cochran clone, was once upon a time a campus radical and a close friend of Sonny’s; Seth Weissman, the newspaper journalist, had been her first serious lover. As she listens to conflicting testimony day after day, Sonny finds the truth to be ever more elusive. Why did June Eddgar, divorced wife of a powerful state senator, drive into one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods looking for a drug dealer named Ordell Trent, a.k.a. Hardcore? Why was she deliberately gunned down? And if Hardcore is lying about being paid $10,000 by Nile to murder his mother, what really happened?

When the truth finally does come out (significantly, not during the trial), it still feels somehow incomplete. Which isn’t a criticism of Turow. By refusing to allow his characters to traffic in gimmicky plot twists, he strengthens his novel. Segueing from the present day back to 1970, he tells two complementary stories; and the juxtaposition of the same characters as both absolute beginners and as midlife casualties makes Laws an unflinching drama about disillusionment and the sometimes mad love of parents for their children, about stinging betrayal among friends and between lovers, and about revenge being a dish best served cold. It’s also a smart and dispiriting meditation about racism’s daily cost, legacy, and corrupting persistence. And on top of all that, it’s terrific entertainment. A-

The Laws of Our Fathers

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