The Defense Rests? Scott Turow’s Favorite Lawyer Is 85 and Still Arguing

The Defense Rests? Scott Turow’s Favorite Lawyer Is 85 and Still Arguing

The Defense Rests? Scott Turow’s Favorite Lawyer Is 85 and Still Arguing

The Defense Rests? Scott Turow’s Favorite Lawyer Is 85 and Still Arguing

The title of Scott Turow’s true-to-form, pleasingly substantial “The Last Trial” is only one of the book’s hints that something will be coming to an end here. That something is the 60-year career of Alejandro Stern, better known as Sandy, a character who has appeared in every Turow novel. Turow adores Sandy but has given him only one chance to hold center stage. That was 30 years ago, in “The Burden of Proof.” Now it’s time for the curtain call.

Or is it? In this meticulously devised courtroom drama, rich with character detail, Turow again demonstrates what he does best: roll out a complex, keenly observed legal case yet save a boatload of surprises for its ending. And make it personal. There’s a lot of Sandy’s own life wrapped up in the case with which he’s exiting.

Like other high-profile thriller writers whose main characters have aged, Turow has planned ahead. He is working on a TV adaptation of his debut novel, the breakthrough hit “Presumed Innocent.” (It will be interesting to see if Sandy’s role gets bigger.) And his next book will hand the Stern franchise over to Pinky, Sandy’s granddaughter, whose nose ornament (a nail), neon tattoos and lack of ambition don’t hide the fact that she and Sandy are kindred spirits. Sandy has been in business with his daughter Marta for years, but they’ve had it. At the start of “The Last Trial,” Marta announces that she’s getting out too.

And Sandy? In the book’s histrionic, italicized prologue, he collapses on the defense table “like a Spartan on his shield, stark and horrifying.” At 85, he feels frail and ponders his failing capacities. (Don’t you believe it. He may be more philosophical about life, but he’s still sharp as a tack.) And he is a cancer patient, which is interesting, because his last case involves a close friend: the doctor who treated him. That doctor, Kiril Pafko, grew up in Argentina, as Sandy did. He’s also a Nobel laureate. And he’s accused of both murder and insider trading over the development of the very drug to which he gave Sandy early access.

You might say Sandy has no business defending Pafko, given such whopping conflicts of interest. But the book chalks this transgression up to long friendship, a debt of gratitude and what-the-hell thinking on Sandy’s part. As the title hammers home, this is his last shot, after all.

A lot of plot and keen observation keep this book moving. Turow’s regular readers will find him in gratifyingly good form. He has given the married Pafko a complicated love life, a story full of holes and a bigger ego than Sandy could have imagined. That doesn’t make him guilty, but it does make him more trouble than they expected. It also makes him the catalyst for some embarrassing friction between the two Sterns, father and daughter, who would be better off fighting without a judge watching. And when Stern makes an artfully described research trip to meet one of Pafko’s ex-girlfriends, we see that the old boy still has a twinkle in his eye.

All of these events have an invigorating effect on Sandy, and Turow captures them with obvious affection. We watch the old defeatist regain a figurative spring in his step, though in reality he limps. He delights in exploiting his age to sway the jury, enjoys playing the sly fox and generally gets his mojo back during the story. At the same time, Turow invests him with honest contemplation of how close the end is and what his life has added up to.

The book proceeds just as a trial would, with chapters devoted to procedural stages and the different charges Pafko faces. No writer invests these gradual legal developments with the kind of micro-suspense that Turow does. “The Last Trial” becomes especially topical when it comes to the time-consuming F.D.A. requirements for approving g-Livia, the drug with which Pafko was involved: His failure to adhere to the guidelines is the basis for one of the charges against him. (By the standards of the moment, the agency’s extreme scrupulousness seems almost quaint.)

Turow is on solid ground with his regulatory information, though he acknowledges that he needed help fathoming its “unrivaled complexity.” The insider trading charges are more ponderous. But this is also a character study, with Sandy as Turow’s vehicle for looking at messy personal lives (Pafko’s is a record-breaker), long careers, aging, friendship and, of course, his guiding light: the law.

If he is lofty about that, he’s certainly earned the right to be. Faith in the law is, as Turow writes, a fundamental truth of Sandy’s existence. And the law, he adds, in one of many passages in the book reflecting this sentiment, is “humanity’s sanctuary, where we retreat from unreason. And humans need the law, because they need to believe there is some justice to their interactions, a justice that God or Fate or the Universe, call it what you like, will never provide on their own.”


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