Monday, 15 June 2020


I have no doubt that Scott Turow read and/or watched a lot of Perry Mason when he was younger. It’s not that his novels ape Erle Stanley Gardner’s template, with the shocking courtroom reveal. Nor is his prose as straight-forward and workmanlike as the pulp wordsmith. But what Turow does that Gardner did before him is get beyond the simple elements of courtroom drama, by presenting the personal conflicts outside the courtroom. His stories are not so much ‘whodunits’ as ‘whydunits’, sometimes as tricky in their past references as Agatha Christie and other times as revelatory as Ross MacDonald, in whose books the evil that men do always seems to come back to haunt someone.

The Last Trial is firmly in that style. It is, literally, the last trial for Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern, a constant presence in Turow’s courtrooms. He is now 85, in court with his daughter and legal partner Marta. His Paul Drake (Perry Mason’s investigator) is his grand-daughter and paralegal, Pinky, a punky problem for most of her family but her granddad’s favourite, kind of like William Katt playing Paul Drake, Jr. Stern is defending an old friend, and fellow Argentine immigrant, Kiril Parko, a Nobel prize winning medical researcher who is being put on trial for counts of murder, fraud and insider trading when his anti-cancer drug, G-livia, has apparently caused deaths in patients receiving it as treatment.

This is a complicated case, not least because, difficult as the medical case is, the financial law regarding fraud and insider trading are even more convoluted. Part of the joy of Turow’s best work is following his explanations for laymen of the issues involved, and the way the legal issues often trump the factual ones.

But what makes this novel work so well is the parallel construction of the families. Pafko’s partner is his son, by all accounts a brilliant researcher, and his wife Donatella, whom Kiril wooed away from her previous husband, is a steely counter-point to her husband’s Argentine charm: a hard contrast to Stern’s own. In fact, when one potential witness seems to give Sandy a come-on, it is something that sends warning signals up for the reader, if not for Stern himself. And in the end, the case comes down not so much to the legalities and their interpretation by lawyers, judge and jury. That system is so enclosed, it was a wonder the judge, with a former relationship with Sandy and working past with the US attorney, didn’t see fit to recuse herself. But as I say, in the end that doesn’t matter: the case and its denouement comes down to a matter of personality, or personalities, of conflicts hidden and overlooked for decades, and simple matters of personal pride and ego. Turow leads us to a legal conclusion, and to a personal one as well, made clear in Sandy’s final dialogue with Pinky, in which she questions whether the case’s outcome was fair. Sandy thinks “the law is erected on many fictions, and perhaps the falsest one of all is that humans, in the end, are rational”. The thought inform s Sandy’s reply to her, and it is a hell of a way to go out.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow
Macmillan Mantle, £18.99, ISBN 9781529039085

Note: this review also appeared at Shots Crime & Thriller E-Zine

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