Testimony, by Scott Turow

The premise of this 2017 novel is that four hundred Roma, gypsies, were reported buried alive in a cave after a deliberate man-made landslide trapped them inside. This is in Bosnia in 2004. Did such a massacre truly happen? If it did, who was responsible? Was it the Serbian militia? Was it Bosnian Muslims? Was it local gangsters? None of them liked the Roma.

There are also rumors that the American army was responsible. That they killed the gypsies in revenge because those same gypsies had stolen American guns and sold them to the Bosnian Serb leader, Laja Kajevic. And that this brutal man, patterned after the real Radovan Karadzic, had ambushed the Americans with those guns when they tried to capture him, resulting in four dead American soldiers and eight wounded.

The complicated politics of the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians killed one another during the 1990s, has drawn Kindle County prosecutor Bill ten Boom to Europe two decades later. His move is in response to a mid-life crisis produced by an unfulfilling career back home and a lackluster marriage. And since he is of Dutch ancestry, he has accepted an assignment as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The American lawyer knows that a gypsy, Ferko Rincic, has brought a report of the gypsy massacre to the Court, and that his assignment will be to verify that story. All of which also represents a major switch from Turow’s own previous environment for his legal thrillers, Kindle County in the American Midwest. And not only does his hero know no one at the international court, he must also operate within an entirely new legal system.

The result is a fast moving legal thriller in which the ground rules keep changing as Boom and the Belgian Goos, his official investigator, uncover new information. The new data, however, seems either to contradict previous information or to be less reliable. This begins with the details of Ferko’s original report, but then continues as Boom succumbs to the sexual favors of Esma Czarni, Ferko’s lawyer, who is a British-educated beauty who claims a gypsy heritage. Still further complications are introduced by a transgendered woman, Attila, a former American army sergeant who now has contacts with both the American military and the Bosnian militia as a local provider of back-up services.

The search for the truth of what happened to the gypsies in that cave a decade earlier is a long and complicated one. There are thrilling moments, such as when Boom has his neck chained by unknown captors to the neck of his official investigator at the top of a Bosnian water tower, where the wrong move by either one will send them toppling to their death. And there are some emotionally moving moments as well, such as when Boom speculates on the faithfulness of the women in his life. But even more moving is when he learns that his true ancestry is not Dutch, and that his parents brought him to the America he loves in order to avoid charges of betrayal.

Indeed, the loyalties and the treacheries of the characters Boom meets in his new job are difficult to follow in a part of the world where the Bosnians, the gypsies, the U.S. Army, the Serbian militia, the free-lance provider, and the international court are often working at cross-purposes. What is interesting, however, is that many of these adversaries do come to appreciate and respect one another, even as they plot against each other. This recognition occurs, even though the slow revelation of what really happened in that cave produces long and complicated exchanges that are deliberately misleading. Which leads to more long conversations being sought from more reliable sources. Or, are they? Obviously, the testimony of the title refers to these conflicting conversations, even though many of them are not official proceedings in a courtroom.

Yet, despite these long and complicated exchanges of information, the overall experience this work offers is a rewarding one. First, both the story and the setting are different from what one usually encounters in legal thrillers. And this unusual Bosnian setting is convincingly real. It obviously required lengthy on-site research by the author, which has paid off.

Second, the novel is rewarding because Boom, the hero, has interesting personal problems that are interwoven into the story. How much is he capable of love, he asks himself. And, later, he speculates how can he fulfill his legal obligations to the Court, and yet at the same time make decisions that reflect the American tradition of fairness. Moreover, because he has come to respect a few of these adversaries, he recognizes that some have done bad things for good reasons, while others have done good things which were illegal.

In sum, this is a long and complicated story that moves fast early on, and then more slowly as Boom first gets involved with certain women, and then encounters a more nuanced situation when closing in on the truth about what happened to the gypsies. At the end, he seems to have found that truth, and yet is not completely happy with what he has learned.

What Turow has done here is taken moments of actual history, like an international court seeking to bring justice to the former Yugoslavia, like the historical cruelty among former Yugoslav neighbors, like the brutality of an actual Bosnian leader, like NATO troops rounding up weapons as part of enforcing the peace agreement, like a mysterious movement of seized arms from Bosnia to Iraq, and like a disgraced American general intent on saving his reputation. No wonder weaving them together turns out to be so complex.

Ben Macintyre aptly sums up this novel in his New York Times review. “This is at once a thriller, a story of middle-aged angst, an exposition of international law and an exploration of an intensely serious and a very nasty episode in recent history. Like the international court’s attempts to ring retrospective justice to Bosnia, it is imperfect and occasionally confusing, but also admirable and important.”

Just as his hero Boom sought a change of scenery and a change of venue, one wonders where Scott Turow will set his next novel. Will he return to Kindle County? Or will he explore the world further, intrigued by how the law is practiced under other cultures? (June, 2019)

The Gods of Guilt, by Michael Connelly

There is nothing like a good mystery novel to clean one’s literary palette. After starting and never finishing novels by Michael Downing and Gregor von Rezzori, and then finishing novels by Mario Soldati and Julian Barnes, but not inspired to write about them, I sought a novel with a strong story line. I needed to clear away the deeper psychological explorations of life that existed in those four novels that had long been sitting on my bookshelf. And so I turned to a mystery. I wanted a change of pace. I wanted to read about people doing interesting things and a world I also found interesting. I wanted to sit down with a book that swept me up into a non-existent world that was as real as my own.

And so I turned to Michael Connelly, whose world was easy to enter, intriguing to follow, and yet intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. No, the world of mysteries may not be literature, but it brings its own pleasures. And The Gods of Guilt, published in 2013, offered me such pleasures.

This is the story of two crimes, and two campaigns for justice that confront Mickey Haller, a Los Angeles lawyer and one of two series heroes that Connelly has created. In the first crime, Andre La Cosse is arrested for the murder of a call girl, Gloria Dayton, whom Haller had helped in the past. And when La Cosse, who arranged the girl’s assignations online, says he is innocent of her death, Haller wants to believe him, and the reader does as well. But if La Cosse is not the killer, then who is? For the police to absolve La Cosse, Haller must find that person. And to do that, he must find out why Gloria was killed. Was it something she did in her past? And, sure enough, he recalls that a while ago he helped her betray a powerful drug dealer, Hector Moya, who is now in jail. And so he must now revisit the ramifications of Moya’s, perhaps false, arrest and his potential desire for revenge.

Whereupon, many complications follow. The major one is that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has led the local cops to identify La Cosse as the girl’s killer. So Haller has to battle with two levels of law enforcement, especially with a corrupt DEA man, James Marco. He also has to deal with a smart lawyer now in prison, his incompetent son, and another smart lawyer, who is now in a nursing home, plus two other call girls who once worked with Gloria. With one, Haller even establishes a romantic relationship.

There is also a personal complication. The Gods of Guilt of the title refers to juries, which decide the gilt or innocence of the person on trial. But Connelly extends this idea to a personal guilt that Haller feels. There is the guilt he feels for being estranged from his daughter, Hayley, who will not speak to him because she believes he caused the death of one of her girl friends. He also feels guilty because in the past he had tried to save Gloria from her call girl life, and now realizes that he has failed her. And there is further guilt awaiting him if he does not get the police to release La Cosse, his innocent client. Thus, by seeking justice for both La Cosse and Gloria, Haller his seeking redemption for his own sins of the past.

These complications enrich Haller’s character, create a certain vulnerability, and help the reader to identify with him. Thus, we accept his insistence that he will stretch the rules of the court in order to defend a client—that, “any ethical question or gray area could be overcome by the knowledge that it is the sworn duty of the defense attorney to present the best defense of his client.” In other words, a smart lawyer uses the law to his client’s advantage. And so we give Haller the benefit of doubt when he challenges the legal system in behalf of La Cosse.

It should also be recognized that Haller cares for people. He cares for Gloria, who he feels deceived him when she accepted his help. He cares for his daughter who will not speak to him. He cares about the employee he loses during this case. He cares about how his two ex-wives feel about him. And he cares about himself, about the guilt he feels at how he has failed in his relationships with others.

This novel is enhanced further by Haller’s relationship with each member of his legal team. All are real people because of those real relationships. When he loses one loyal member, for example, we feel its emotional impact on him. And with another, Jennifer Aronson, we relate to this young girl who begins as a legal aide but by the end of the case has impressed Haller with significant legal contributions.

The heart of this novel is the lengthy trial scene at its conclusion. It is told to the reader with supreme craft, for Connelly has Haller explain the purpose behind each legal step he is taking before he dramatizes it. Yet, this explanation is in no way condescending to the reader. Indeed, one is fascinated by the misdirection Haller employs to catch off-guard witnesses testifying before him. The result is legal steps so complicated and yet so logical that one speculates that Connelly is challenging here one of our best authors, Scott Turow, in creating courtroom drama.

This courtroom drama is developed with step-by-step logic to arrive at a convincing resolution. If there is no last-minute development, no surprise ending, none becomes necessary. Its logic simply works. Yes, there is a sudden act of violence at the end, but it was not, for me, necessary. It simply turns into dramatic action an admission of guilt, a technique that many authors rely on these days. And Connelly uses such a dramatic moment to achieve his convincing ending.

While this work is certainly not literature, it encourages one to seek out more Connelly novels, whether the central figure is lawyer Mickey Haller, as here, or policeman Harry Bosch. They are half brothers, and each has a distinctive attitude toward their job. But both do believe in justice, and in each Connelly series they do not hesitate to stretch the law in order to achieve it. (September, 2017)

Identical, by Scott Turow

This starts out as a wonderful novel from 2013. It begins with the family tensions that arose in 1982, when Paul Gianis tried to save his twin, Cass Gianis, from marrying the provocative and beautiful Dita Kronon. Then it jumps to 2008 and takes on a political flavor, as Paul decides to run for mayor.

So I settled in to read a wonderful novel, even literature, as author Turow introduces these two Greek families. And it soon becomes apparent that what occurred in 1982 between the Gianis and the Kronons has major repercussions in 2008. Of the two families, there is the wealthy entrepreneur Zeus (Zisis) Kronon and his son Hal (Herakles) and daughter Dita (Aphrodite). And from the Gianis family, there are the twins, Paul, a lawyer and leader of the state senate, and Cass, and their mother, Lidia. Turow presents these families in considerable richness and depth, with their present reflecting the past and their past influencing the future.

To help convey the link between the past events and current relationships, Turow has made two decisions. First, he has scattered through his novel, step by step, details of the violent scene in 1982 in which Dita Kronon was killed. Each step in the series appears in an italic sans-serif type, and each anticipates the knowledge that two detectives, retired cop Tim Brodie and ex-FBI agent Evon Miller, will encounter when learning in 2008 about what happened in 1982.

Turow’s second decision was to explore the truth of Dita’s death through those two detectives. Evon now heads security for the Kronon family business, which son Hal now runs; and Hal has directed her to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the killing of his sister. For that killing, Cass Gianis pled guilty, has served his sentence, and is now eligible to be released from jail. By his strategy, it is clear that Hal wishes to scuttle Paul’s run for mayor.

However, I would have preferred Turow convey this story through the Gianis family itself, especially through such an interesting person as Paul. Except…he couldn’t have done that, because of the surprises he has in store for the reader about the past relationships between the two families. (Paul already knows them.) And the result is that as we move into the novel, the story, unfortunately, becomes more about the revelation of those surprises—as they are timed to coincide with the detective’s and the reader’s gradual understanding of what led to Dita’s death. We therefore move away from the mayoral race and the political texture—and, more significantly, away from the complex family relationships—that would have enriched this novel.

Which means that for me this potential literary novel about family and politics has lowered itself to the level of a crime novel. It has also left the intimacy of the two families to concentrate on the perspectives of two outsiders. The author does make an effort to enrich both Tim and Evon, but they are loners and not especially interesting. Tim is an elderly widower of about 80 who continuously mourns his dead wife, and Evon is a lesbian of 50 who is trying to flee her clinging lover Heather. A lack of tension between these two detectives also serves to flatten their characters.

The heart of this crime novel lies in the title, with the significant action revolving around the identical twins, Paul and Cass. Yes, Cass has confessed and gone to jail for the crime. But was he truly guilty? And, if not, why did he confess? Could it be Paul who was guilty? Or Lidia? Whose blood was actually found on the scene? Or could the killer be someone else?

We learn a lot about DNA, blood samples, fingerprints, and plastic surgery—subjects, note, that belong more to crime novels than to literature. Turow also leaves aside the issue of justice, why and how a possibly innocent man was convicted of murder. (And, until late, why he confessed.) Instead, the emphasis is on whether or not he is guilty, not on the injustice if he is not—which certainly should be an emphasis for an author with literary ambitions.

Turow acknowledges in an Afterward that identical twins were born into his own family (although one died at birth), and the idea of such twins has always fascinated him, especially the love relationship that develops between them. And certainly here he has explored that relationship, what each twin will do for the other. But when he explores it within the context of a crime, rather than its overall effect on family relationships, he has for me lowered his literary sights.

Yes, the author has tried to dress up the relationship by creating two Greek families and recalling the legend of Castor (Cass) and Pollux (Paul), and how the two were conceived. He claims that he has embroidered their legendary fate to create his story here; but it comes across to me as window-dressing to enrich the identical twin theme—albeit provocative window-dressing when you realize the Greek legend. But the result is that the intricacy of the crime’s solution is overwhelmed by this identical twin theme and the self-sacrifice it entails.

And we, in turn, are less involved in the solution to Dita’s murder than in the decision of the twins as a result of their love relationship. Indeed, that decision has very little to do with the crime’s solution, which is the supposed point of this novel. On the other hand, the twin’s love and support of each other does not bring one back to the complex family relationship. Rather, it is a thing apart, from both the two families and the crime itself.

Turow knows how to establish complex family relationships and how to structure a slow revelation of those relationships, as well as how to explore the inside workings of our justice system, particularly in the courtroom. But here he has let the needs of a thriller overwhelm the stories of both families. One will, as a result, approach future Turow novels expecting entertainment rather than a deeper exploration of justice. And expect to witness the external repercussions of love, such as the self-sacrifices here, rather than explore its internal workings—of the pain, for example, felt by these characters for what they did. (January, 2017)