It’s hard to remember now, but Scott Turow was John Grisham before John Grisham. The attorney reinvigorated the legal-thriller genre with the massive bestseller ”Presumed Innocent” in 1987, four years before Grisham hit it huge with ”The Firm.” Yet while Grisham turned himself into a one-man publishing force, Turow has taken it slow, releasing a new novel every few years while working as a partner in a big Chicago law firm.
But based on the evidence provided by Reversible Errors, legal practice hasn’t made Turow’s fiction anywhere near perfect. At first, the case sounds promising: Arthur Raven is enlisted by a federal appellate court to represent Rommy Gandolph, a convicted triple murderer who’s slated to be executed in 33 days. His guilt quickly comes into question when another inmate makes a deathbed confession to the crimes.
Readers expecting Arthur to rediscover his soul while crafting a passionate argument against capital punishment, à la Grisham’s ”The Chamber,” are out of luck. For a guy who’s been involved in plenty of real-life death-penalty litigation, Turow offers a surprising paucity of opinions on the topic. ”I still believe in capital punishment in principle,” his protagonist states early on, but it’s never clear if his experience with Rommy’s case changes his mind.
Turow obviously knows his way around a courtroom. He offers genuine insight into the trial process, at one point likening a defense attorney’s examination of a witness to ”a parent asserting a gentle influence over an unruly child.” At his all-too-infrequent best, he’s able to depict legal procedures dramatically without slipping into ”Perry Mason”-style theatrics.
Then again, it might help if Turow’s hero were half as compelling as Mason. Arthur, a 38-year-old shlub who’s married only to his job, has ”had the droop and pallor of middle age since his teens.” He might be a typical middle American lawyer (the book is set in Kindle County, the fictional Midwestern locale featured in Turow’s other novels), but he’s not the kind of guy you want to cheer on — or even read about — for 433 pages.
His client is no more exciting. Turow doesn’t sentimentalize Rommy, a lowlife with an IQ of 73, but neither does he make the defendant interesting enough for us to care about. We’re told that ”craziness just seemed to have eaten the center out of him.” Gosh, that must explain why the character is such a cipher.
The mentally ill Rommy too neatly correlates with Arthur’s schizophrenic older sister, Susan, for whom he serves as primary caretaker. No surprise that she amounts to little more than a ”Rain Man”-ish device to make Arthur seem more sympathetic. Even less believable are caricatures like Stew Dubinsky, a sleazy reporter ”unreliable in virtually every regard, habitually late, sometimes cavalier with facts, and often underhanded in gathering them,” and the Rev. Dr. Carnelian Blythe, an Al Sharpton stereotype ”who seemed to regard every indignity suffered by an American black as equivalent to slavery.”
”Errors”’ two most fleshed-out figures are Gillian Sullivan and Muriel Wynn, the judge and prosecutor in Rommy’s original trial. Unfortunately, both women get bogged down in romantic subplots that take over the book. Freshly released from prison after serving time for taking bribes, ex-junkie Gillian improbably falls into the arms of Arthur, ”the hairiest man she’d ever seen.” Meanwhile, Muriel puts her career and marriage in jeopardy by rekindling an affair with the detective who busted Rommy. Embarrassingly graphic sex scenes (Gillian enjoys ”a quaking, serial orgasm that belonged on the Richter scale”) and gooey dialogue (”Maybe I see you more clearly than you see yourself”) prove that love stories aren’t Turow’s strong suit.
The prose repeatedly turns purple outside the bedroom, too, like when Muriel is said to care for victims ”with the radiant nuclear fury of the sun.” And in an annoying literary tic, Turow compares his characters to animals with an Orwellian obsessiveness: As if his birdlike surname weren’t enough, Arthur Raven is also analogized to a puppy, a plow horse, and the cartoon hero Crusader Rabbit. Still, it’s another description of Arthur that best encapsulates ”Reversible Errors”: ”organized and sincere, occasionally forceful but seldom electrifying.” Boring readers to death might not be a crime, but it is an error — and in this case, an irreversible one.