Personal Injuries

by Scott Turow

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

384 pages, 1999

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Legal Letdown

Reviewed by Shannon O'Leary


Pulling off a good legal thriller is a tricky matter. Short of an O.J. Simpson-style trial, your basic case has about as many thrills as a day in the life of a court reporter. The trick for the author is to imaginatively weave together characters and plot without adopting the necessarily plodding quality of the law itself.

You'd think that if anyone would be a natural at this kind of storytelling, it would be Scott Turow. After all, this one-time assistant U.S. attorney, who now practices law at a prestigious Chicago firm, practically invented the modern courtroom thriller with his 1987 bestseller Presumed Innocent. Later turned into a film starring Harrison Ford, Presumed Innocent (followed by The Burden of Proof, Pleading Guilty and The Laws of Our Fathers) helped prime readers for the spate of books by John Grisham, Richard North Patterson, Nancy Taylor Rosenberg and others that today routinely populate bestseller lists. Turow is still considered "the class of the field," as Talk magazine recently put it. But in his latest fictional proceeding, Personal Injuries, he seems to have forgotten what it takes to wow the jury of his readers.

Turow does try mightily to make his legal machinations here as gripping as possible. Personal Injuries offers a deceptively juicy plot involving judicial wrongdoing, menacing thugs, a struggling out-of-the-closet FBI agent and an overzealous U.S. attorney. The scenario is actually based on an infamous federal undercover operation in which Turow took part: Operation Greylord, which resulted in double-digit convictions of crooked judges and lawyers in Chicago during the 1980s. In this fictionalized version, Stan Sennett is the federal prosecutor who's determined to pull down the corrupt justice system of Kindle County (the mythical double for Illinois' Cook County) via a lawyer-turned-confidential informant.

The snitch in question, and the book's central character, is Robbie Feaver (pronounced "favor" or "fever," depending on his mood), a too-handsome, too-chatty personal-injury lawyer, who skillfully practices infidelity in and out of the courtroom. A self-confessed frustrated actor, Feaver approaches the law as his own personal theater. Everything is about "the play," and profiting from rigged settlements is as natural for him as taking a curtain call. But when the feds uncover his judicial slush fund, Feaver is cornered into playing the part of his life and is soon accessorizing his Armani wardrobe with a wire to record payoff sessions with judges and their go-betweens. This government sting's ultimate goal is to snare kingpin Brendan Tuohey, a wily presiding justice and uncle to Feaver's law partner and childhood friend.

Despite being ethically impaired -- one of his talents is his ability to manufacture crocodile tears on demand when wooing clients -- Feaver is surprisingly appealing, with a sort of "the boy can't help it" charm. His loyalty is not to the law, but to his family and best friend. And his devotion to his wife Rainey, who is succumbing to the final, frustrating tortures of Lou Gehrig's disease, is touchingly convincing. By comparison, the book's other characters -- from the crusading Sennett to the tale's barely there narrator, George Mason, Feaver's own attorney -- are so thinly drawn, they're anorexic.

The only other character in Personal Injuries with some real flesh is the female FBI agent assigned as Feaver's shadow. An ex-Olympic athlete who goes by the name of Evon Miller (improbably pronounced "Even"), she is fronting as Feaver's paralegal and lover. Their relationship is the most engaging and suspenseful aspect of this book, as Feaver plays sexual cat-and-mouse with the tough-talking, sexually ambivalent Evon. Unfortunately, instead of driving Turow's story, the rich character development of Robbie and Evon comes at the expense of his plot, which is excruciatingly mechanical and poorly paced. Following the series of wire-tappings, stakeouts and interminable confabs between lawyers and government agents quickly becomes a tedious exercise. Author Turow does offer occasional relief from boredom, such as when his narrator, Mason, muses about the importance men's urinals often play in public corruption cases:

Why two fellows would choose to pass cash as they stand at the urinal has continued to puzzle me. Because they have only one free hand and no one can reach a gun? Because they are, so to speak, exposed? Because all know this is a truly dirty business? Whatever the reason.... Jurors are inevitably unwilling to believe the parties were up to anything good.

These insights, however, are too few and far between to sustain interest. And the unexpected late-chapter drama of murder-by-golf club arrives much too tardily to satisfy the hopelessly anesthetized reader.

To give Scott Turow his due, there is a disclaimer of sorts at the outset of Personal Injuries, which suggests the novel's limited appeal. On the first page we are warned that this is a "lawyer's story, the kind attorneys like to hear and tell." Perhaps, they will find this a page-turner. For everyone else, the injury of time misspent could be taken personally. | November 1999


SHANNON O'LEARY is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor.