Legal thriller godfather releases his latest novel, 'Testimony'


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Many attorneys who have become successful novelists have quit practicing law.

However, New York Times best-selling novelist Scott Turow – best known for the 1987 legal thriller Presumed Innocent, which was made into an eponymous 1989 movie starring Harrison Ford – hasn’t.

“I can give a smart-ass answer and say because I’m stubborn. I have not practiced law full-time since 1990. One answer why I still practice is because my partners have been really kind enough to accommodate my desire to practice law without practicing full-time. I’m very engaged in the milieu of the law. I’ve been in the Chicago legal community (for 39 years). It’s where I live. I enjoy maintaining my citizenship,” explained Turow, 68, of Chicago.

He is a partner at the law firm of Dentons US LLP. His latest novel Testimony (Grand Central Publishing $28) will be released Tuesday, May 16.

Turow and fellow attorney-turned-novelist John Grisham are considered the godfathers of the modern legal thriller.

“I think to be really blunt: John and I have that status for slightly different reasons. Obviously, Presumed Innocent was the first of the lawyer-based novels to gain really great popularity. John followed fairly closely with ‘The Firm,’ which – I think – popularized in a very deliberate way that genre. I have been fortunate to have been the critics’ darling within that period of time. My books have been held up as the most literary – or the more literary. John’s got this vast audience. I think that’s why the two of us remain the household names in that field,” explained Turow.

In Presumed Innocent, prosecutor Rusty Sabich investigates the murder of fellow lawyer Carolyn Polhemus. It’s later revealed that he had an affair with her and is subsequently charged with her murder. Turow gave his insight on why Presumed Innocent is so popular.

“Number one was the concept of looking at the lawyer as a flawed person. Number two was the emphasis of the nuts and bolts of a lawyer’s life and the legal practice in the courtroom… There’s a much greater emphasis and a much greater appetite for learning the actual details of law practice by readers. These two things were very distinguishing to me about the novels that came after vs. the ones that came before,” he said.

Turow inspired Michigan native/attorney-turned-novelist Allison Leotta, alias the “female John Grisham.”

“Blame (Turow) for the number of lawyers in America. Presumed Innocent spurred thousands of students to apply to law school. I was one of them,” said Leotta. “His novels are not just thrilling page-turners but beautifully crafted masterpieces of prose. He is our standard bearer; his work is our yardstick. Every legal novel published in the English language is compared to his. Turow’s writing is what I aspire to in my own novels. (He’s) the godfather of the legal thriller. ‘Presumed Innocent’ sparked an appetite for legal thrillers which novelists are still trying to feed today.”

In Testimony, Turow leaves the confines of his fictional Kindle County and takes readers to the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. Attorney Bill ten Boom has walked out on everything he’s held dear: his wife, Kindle County, even his country. He investigates the disappearance of an entire Gypsy refugee camp during the Bosnian War, a case unsolved for ten years. To uncover what happened, Bill navigates a host of suspects ranging from Serb paramilitaries to organized crime to even the U.S. government itself.

“I needed somebody who could credibly leave his life behind and yet be well enough established in a senior position in the International Criminal Court, so Bill came from that,” said Turow. “His voice came naturally to me. To that extent, you’re listening to an American who’s roughly my age.”

Further, Bill’s parents were Holocaust survivors – something he never knew. 

“That always figured into his identity. For me, there was a clear path between that fact and the discontent with his life,” said Turow. “That has to be a very significant event when your parents tell you deep into your adulthood that they were not who they always told you they were.”

In some ways, Turow got the idea for Testimony in 1978 and 2000. In 1978, he was visiting a family member in a Chicago-based hospital. At the same time, the Roma – more commonly called Gypsies – were also there, visiting a dying trubal leader.

“The hospital staff was going crazy. They were locking patients’ doors because jewelry was disappearing. I noticed one day all of the Roma were gone and with them – this was back when you could still smoke in the hospital – those long, round ashtrays that used to be in waiting rooms,” recalled Turow. “I remember thinking how could any group of people self-consciously do this to themselves? Make themselves so unwelcome and engage in these patterns of petty theft, knowing it’ll only make people hate them more and be less willing to deal with them?”

He continued: “In their own way, the Roma are like any other minority group in the world and yet they really do stand apart. I promised myself that someday I’d learn about these people and write about them… You don’t have to look far to find a long history of war crimes against the Roma. That was where Testimony started.”

When Turow was promoting Reversible Errors in 2000 in the Netherlands, then-U.S. Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider had arranged a reception for Turow at The Hague.

“At the time, there were a lot of American lawyers working (there). I remember standing in this circle of American lawyers – ‘Oh, you’ve got to write a book about this place,’” said Turow. “I have to say the idea immediately struck me as a great idea because I hadn’t seen any novels set in the International Criminal Court. I hung on to that idea and began making it real four years ago.”

Making the connections between The Hague, the Roma, the Bosnian War, and his protagonist’s secret family history was challenging for Turow.

“My publisher bought the book on a very brief outline. My agent told me her heart was in her mouth; she couldn’t see how this would actually come together. I have to say I didn’t know the answer but I was more confident than she was. It’s still a challenge when dealing with a variety of things you know nothing about; I didn’t know anything about international criminal law, the Roma, I never set foot in Bosnia. There were quite a few challenges.”

He explained the 4-year gap between Testimony and his previous novel Innocent.

“I do what I can do… I wouldn’t be writing the books I wanted to write if I was trying to turn them out faster,” said Turow. “I need time to cogitate and really live with the characters.”

Former Michigan State University law professor/attorney-turned-novelist Anthony Franze called having his novels compared to Turow’s the “ultimate compliment.”

“It’s a major event when he comes out with a new book,” said Franze. “The buzz is that Testimony is set to be Turow’s most gripping novel yet. But perhaps most impressive, he’s stayed on the bestseller list while practicing law and remaining active in the legal community, helping fight real-life injustices and bringing about capital punishment reform. For me, he’s an inspiration by any measure.”

Being a novelist was Turow’s lifelong ambition. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in creative writing from Amherst College and Stanford University, respectively. In fact, he received an Edith Mirrielees Fellowship to Stanford and became a Jones Lecturer. Turow entered Harvard Law School, graduating cum laude in 1978.

“(Law) seemed really interesting to me and more worthwhile than being an English professor, which is not to say it’s a not a great thing to do – it is; it just wasn’t right for me. So I decided to apply to law school, notwithstanding the fact that I had other opportunities to maintain my academic life. And so it went.”

At Harvard, he wrote 1977’s One L, an autobiographical narrative as a first-year law student. It’s become a perennial best-seller and required reading for many students entering law school, including Leotta.

“My dad gave me a copy before I attended Harvard Law in the late 1990s. And while I was there, professors were still arguing about who was the basis for Turow’s infamous character, the scathing Professor Perini. Several claimed to be,” she said.

Being a novelist has helped Turow become a better lawyer and vice-versa.

“There’s nothing like trying cases before a jury that teaches you more about popular storytelling. Most of what I’ve learned about storytelling, I really learned as a criminal prosecutor,” he said. “A novelist understands human beings, which is very, very helpful for a criminal lawyer. It’s a staple of being a criminal defense lawyer that your clients lie to you. To some extent, you need to imagine what actually happened on your own, and you also need to have some sympathetic understanding of their motivation.”