The Last Trial, by Scott Turow. Grand Central Publishing, May 2020.
Every reader has a guilty pleasure. For me it has always been courtroom fiction. Granted, this led me to frustration because I would read many courtroom novels only to become irritated over the author's inaccuracies compared to the real-life courtrooms where I worked. This ended one sunny afternoon in Reno, Nevada, when discussing author John Grisham with a fellow judge from Missouri. He observed that in legal fiction, "Plot trumps everything else." He was right.
In 1987, Chicago attorney Scott Turow entered this popular genre with his best-selling novel Presumed Innocent. It marked the beginning of a successful writing career that has seen the publication of 11 novels and one work of nonfiction. In a cover story published in June of 1990, Time Magazine labeled Turow the "Bard of the Litigious Age." Throughout his writing career, Turow has maintained an active law practice in Chicago and, along with John Grisham, has been a prominent voice in the group of lawyers opposing the death penalty. I have had the pleasure of reading all of Turow's novels, most of them entertaining and enjoyable, but none reaching the exceptional level of Presumed Innocent. That is no longer the case. The Last Trial is a remarkable work. It joins Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder, considered by many to be the finest work of courtroom fiction, at the top of any list.
Turow has set many of his novels in the fictional venue of Kindle County. The locale looks, tastes and feels like Chicago. Many of his characters have made repeated appearances in his novels and The Last Trial continues in that tradition. The title's trial is led by Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, who first appeared in Presumed Innocent as counsel for Rusty Sabich, a fellow attorney, accused of murdering his lover. What set that novel apart from many other courtroom novels was the portrayal of Sandy Stern as an attorney. In many courtroom works the attorney is anything but a true advocate. Instead he spends most of the story as an investigator, secret agent or all-around tough guy, but not Sandy Stern. He is totally a lawyer using only rules of evidence and trial procedure to win.
Stern is now 85 years old and his final trial finds him representing his longtime friend Kiril Pafko. Ideally Pafko would be the client every lawyer dreams of representing. He is a Nobel Prize-winning doctor who has developed a life-saving cancer treatment. But he sits in a federal courtroom on trial before another frequent Turow character, Judge Sonya Klonsky, accused of insider trading through research data manipulation and causing the death of multiple patients who participated in the drug studies. As Sandy tells the jury in his opening statement, they must decide whether a person who has stood at the peak of scientific achievement, revered afor decades of work to end the curse of cancer, could become a fraud and a murderer.
Trial attorneys do not walk into a courtroom unprepared. In most instances their preparation is contained in a large volume known in the profession as a trial notebook. Turow has structured The Last Trial as a trial notebook and in organization and content it moves gracefully through the Pafko trial. For Sandy Stern, who is concluding six decades of courtroom contests, it is also the opportunity to reflect upon his career, some of which Turow has chronicled in previous novels. It is a life, "where his energies and attention have often been entirely consumed by the courtroom, leaving less than he would have liked for the people he claims to love."
As the trial progresses, Turow avoids the tendency of most authors to take liberty with courtroom procedures. Not only do his characters follow law and procedures, Turow frequently offers readers instruction on rules of evidence and methods of trial strategy. His explanation of the hearsay rule and how to conduct effective cross-examination would be worthy reading for law students and young attorneys. Turow even takes an opportunity to poke fun at some elements of the profession. His scene where three high-powered New York attorneys accompany their Wall Street Journal reporter client to her testimony is hilarious.
It is fitting that Sandy Stern, who has appeared in multiple Turow novels, ends his career in this extraordinary literary accomplishment. The novel's ruminations on retirement and the practice of law are thoughtful and heartfelt. In pre-publication interviews, Turow acknowledges that at age 70 he is coming to grips with some of the last stages of life. But he says he is not done as a writer. In the pages of The Last Trial he certainly has proven his case for that claim.
As an attorney and judge, Stuart Shiffman of Springfield has participated in hundreds of criminal and civil trials. His reviews of courtroom novels and other subjects regularly appear in Illinois Times.