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A master of the legal thriller is still on the top of his game

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The Last Trial

By Scott Turow

Grand Central Publishing. 453 pp. $29

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When Scott Turow's debut novel, "Presumed Innocent," was published in 1987, it was immediately apparent that a new master of the legal thriller had arrived. Turow's novel was a propulsive, astonishingly assured creation that had it all: a dark, brooding undertone, a satisfyingly convoluted plot, an intriguing central mystery and some of the most electric courtroom scenes ever put on paper. In the decades since, Turow has written 10 more novels, each one focused on the men and women whose lives have been shaped by their commitment to the law, and to the inevitably imperfect pursuit of justice.

Turow's latest, "The Last Trial," takes place once again in Kindle County, the fictional Midwestern setting for most of Turow's work. The new book also marks the return of Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, the brilliant defense attorney who first appeared in "Presumed Innocent." Over the years, Stern has played a number of roles, both major and minor, in Turow's fiction. This time, he takes center stage as lead counsel in a long, exhausting trial that will, as the title tells us, be his last.

Stern is now an 85-year-old cancer survivor with multiple physical ailments. Against all logic and for very personal reasons, he has involved himself in a legal battle he knows he might not survive. His client is Dr. Kiril Pafko, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist and distinguished cancer researcher. Stern and Pafko are longtime friends, and Stern thinks he owes his life to Pafko's groundbreaking treatments.

Pafko is co-founder of a research firm (Pafko Therapeutics) responsible for developing g-Livia, a new anti-cancer drug that promises unprecedented results. Through the first year of an extended trial period, g-Livia lives up to that promise, leading to many beneficial outcomes. During the second year, a number of test subjects sicken and die, bringing testing to a halt and leaving g-Livia with an uncertain future. Compounding the problem, Pafko is accused of two related offenses: altering the data to hide the problem from the Food and Drug Administration and selling off a large block of stock before that data could be made public. At the age of 78, accused of fraud, insider trading and multiple counts of homicide, he faces the very real prospect of life in prison.

The trial that follows is a complex and highly technical affair. Turow has done his homework, and his incremental presentation of the evidence not only illuminates the legal issues involved, but it also offers a thorough, digestible account of the steps - research, development, testing - by which a newly created drug is brought to market. Turow is particularly good at integrating this arcane material into a dramatic narrative. Readers of "The Last Trial" will find themselves both entertained and painlessly educated.

The question of Pafko's guilt or innocence is the novel's central mystery, but there is a corollary mystery involving a near-fatal car crash that may have been a deliberate attempt on Sandy Stern's life. Turow teases out these mysteries with immense skill and deliberation. The result is another intelligent page turner by an acknowledged master. Turow, though, has always been more than a popular entertainer. He is a first-rate novelist for whom the world of the courtroom - a world in which the justice done is only "rough and approximate" - becomes the vehicle for intense investigations into the varieties of human frailty.

Beneath its surface level of legal, medical and scientific detail, the narrative slowly unearths a history of greed, vengeance, intellectual dishonesty and acute family dysfunction. By the trial's end, the reader - along with Stern - will come to understand the choices, compromises and outright lies that hide beneath the distinguished facade of Pafko's public life.

"The Last Trial" is a novel about the complex process of coming to judgment, bringing order and partial clarity to the daily parade of human perversity. In the end, it is Stern's judgment, not that of judge or jury, that carries the greatest weight for the reader. In confronting his old friend's failings, Stern is also forced to confront his own. In what is, appropriately, a kind of summation, he must take a hard look at both the forces that have shaped his life - childhood trauma, fear of poverty - and the relationships, with his wives, his children and the law itself, that have sustained him, however imperfectly. No one tells this sort of story better than Turow. No one has illuminated the human side of the legal profession with such precision and care. "The Last Trial" is Scott Turow at his best and most ambitious. He has elevated the genre once again.

 

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