The rules of literary attraction are clear: Characters who start out as antagonists will almost certainly end up as lovers. So when a roguish private-practice attorney (male) is reluctantly paired with a no-nonsense FBI agent (female) in Scott Turow’s masterful new novel, we can safely predict the affair to come from their initial barbs. Except that nothing that looks certain to happen in Personal Injuries ever quite does.
It’s the early 1990s. Stan Sennett, a rigid, zero-tolerance United States attorney (think Ken Starr without the spooky fixed smile and carton of coffee) devises a complex sting operation intended to root out influence peddling among the local judiciary. His ultimate target is presiding judge Brendan Tuohey, Kindle County’s own Professor Moriarty of the courthouse.
The success of the entire scheme depends upon Robbie Feaver (FAY-ver), a cornered lawyer who either cooperates or does time in the federal pen. For more than a decade, Robbie has been paying bribes to judges, but now he’s busted — guaranteed to lose his license, practice, income, and reputation. However, Sennett has offered Robbie a deal that allows him to keep his freedom, of primary concern since Robbie’s wife has been stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He agrees to finger the judges — to entrap them and their bagmen — one by one, on tape. To make sure the unreliable Robbie doesn’t pull any fast ones on his government handlers, federal agent Evon Miller (an alias) joins Robbie’s law firm as a paralegal with instructions to never leave his side. And if everybody at the firm suspects Evon is the notoriously unfaithful Robbie’s latest girlfriend, no problem.
Have I mentioned that Evon and Robbie are practically opposites? Robbie is a hustler, an inveterate liar, but hard to dislike. Evon, on the other hand, is squeaky-clean, and more than a bit priggish. A former athlete (U.S. Olympics women’s field hockey team), she has become, by age 34, desperately professional. ”She believed every word about mission and duty. She lived it and liked it and liked herself for doing a good job right.” But her steadiness and good character mask enormous insecurities (sexual orientation being just one). Living her undercover existence in Kindle County, Evon gradually realizes that the slickly amoral ambulance chaser she came prepared to despise is actually a man of bewildering complexity and generosity. In many ways, he’s a ”good” man. That doesn’t mean, however, that Robbie can be trusted.
The novel is narrated by George Mason, Robbie’s legal counsel and a longtime friend of Sennett’s. ”This is a lawyer’s story,” Mason tells us, ”the kind attorneys like to hear and tell. About a case. About a client.” While occasionally cumbersome (some of the best scenes are reconstructions built from Mason’s ”conjecture and inference”), the device works neatly overall, rendering a highly charged story with dispassionate restraint. Throughout the duration of the sting, Mason contemplates the widening web of governmental deception and the growing number of ensnared judges and finally concludes: ”We are all servants of selfish appetites. All. All of us.” While that can’t be disputed, Turow doesn’t ever suggest we’re only that.
Robbie’s miked-up meetings with members of the courthouse gang provide much of the suspense here, as well as a dozen memorable characters (my favorite is Walter Wunsch, the dour clerk who extorts a set of golf clubs from Robbie). But it’s the in-between times — the long car rides when Robbie and Evon develop their chaste but not unflirtatious friendship, mutually supporting each other throughout the dangerous days leading to Robbie’s grand jury testimony — that are indelible. This is a book as much about loyalty as betrayal.
Unlike so many of his fellow best-selling novelists, Turow hasn’t compromised himself by churning out a novel a year, each one shallower than the last. With lawyerly shrewdness and planning, his books arrive on a regular three-year schedule. The extra care taken shows, too, in every paragraph, as well as in the perfectly staged plot twists. Legal fiction has turned depressingly formulaic and melodramatic lately, but Scott Turow’s just gets richer and smarter. Funnier, too. Personal Injuries is the best work of his career.