Life & Culture

Why crime pays for thriller writer Scott Turow


"The Holocaust hovered over the neighbourhood in which I grew up — and it never left me.” Such a sentiment is surprising coming from the doyen of legal crime thriller writers, Scott Turow.

Still a practising criminal lawyer in his home city of Chicago, Turow set the gold standard in 1987 with Presumed Innocent, whose courtroom scenes on both page and screen (it was a hit movie with Harrison Ford) denote both a lightness of touch and a brilliant intellectual torch, shining on to the law.

There have been nine novels since Presumed Innocent — set in Kindle County, Turow’s fictional version of Chicago (a literary coincidence, of which more later), with its shifting cast of characters and his possible alter ego Rusty Sabich.

The latest, Identical, is based on the Greek myth of identical twins Castor and Pollux but has many Jewish resonances — the close-knit Greek families, the outsider who has married in — in this case, his delicious 81-year-old investigator Tim Brodie, who Turow pledges not to kill off in his next book.

Drifting in and out of Kindle County is the elegant Argentinian-Jewish defence lawyer, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, who got a whole Turow book to himself in The Burden of Proof. He is based partly, Turow says, on a Cuban Jewish friend of his parents, albeit not a lawyer. “I remember thinking that Latin Jews were not familiar figures in American literature, though there is actually a big Cuban Jewish community in Miami. They’re known as Jewbans!”

Scott Turow’s father, born David Turowetsky, was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to Chicago, a city which was as much of an alpha-male melting pot as New York. Three years Turowetsky’s senior — and a pupil at the same high school — was Saul Bellow, one of Turow’s major heroes. Turow’s maternal grandparents, Fanny and Sam Pastron, were, he recalls, utterly indifferent to religious practice. “My dad grew up in a kind of fractured family. His mother died when he was four and he didn’t have any formal religious training as a result of that — even though his father had trained to be a cantor.” Of his own, eclectic, 20-year extracurricular career as singer in the moveable-feast band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, Turow growls: “Blame the voice on previous generations.”

Left to their own devices, he says, his parents would not have gone to synagogue. “But they were emphatically, culturally Jewish, which was certainly true of my grandparents. They saw no contradiction in being culturally and proudly Jewish and not religiously observant. So they bought Israel Bonds and in fact the rebbetzin was my father’s patient [he was an obstetrician].”

His parents asked if he wanted to be barmitzvah, and since everyone he knew was doing so, he agreed. But that was until he ran up against the unpleasant reality of Hebrew school, which all these years later still causes Turow to wince. “I think that Hebrew education in the US still has a long way to go,” he says. “Why young people are not simply taught the language, I don’t know. Hebrew school for me was just terrible. It was utterly devoid of intellectual content. I learned to read, but I don’t think anyone ever taught me what any word meant. I wanted out.

“My mother absolutely refused to allow me to quit. I think I accurately divined her motive that she just wanted to have a big party. Ultimately, I got thrown out of Hebrew school two weeks before my barmitzvah.The rabbi would never fail to barmitzvah me because of my father’s relationship with the family, so I wasn’t worried.”
In the event, Turow married a woman from an observant family (they are now divorced). “She liked to joke that it was a mixed marriage because she was Jewish and I was not.

“But it was important to Annette that our kids had a religious education and I became the shlepper, taking them to Sunday school. I think all three of my children would tell you that it was very valuable to them.”

Turow wears his allegiance to cultural Judaism assertively, though he rejects Jewish liturgy. But as a young man, seeking to make contact with Saul Bellow, he appealed to Bellow’s “warm Jewish heart”, which to his great surprise led to a dialogue of sorts for several years.

He recalls speaking Yiddish with his grandparents “in a neighbourhood where everyone was Jewish. I remember as a little boy someone having to explain to me that two black people waiting at a bus stop were not Jewish. I didn’t know that there were people who were not Jewish.” It might be argued that Turow’s success at the bar — he is a highly acclaimed prosecutor — is partly due to his ingrained-in-spite- of-himself talmudic training. Readers can certainly gain from that as his novels twist and turn with the adroit skills of a yeshiva bocher accustomed to debate without end.

After years of trying to become a full-time writer, Turow changed tack and enrolled in Harvard Law School, to his parents’ great relief. Nevertheless, the aspiring lawyer kept his hand in and suggested to his agent that a book should be written chronicling a first year at law school. The result was the non-fiction One L, which enjoyed great success.

But it was Presumed Innocent which changed "Turow’s life. These days, legal work accounts for a quarter of his time and he has famously said that he can be writing a novel, field a call from a client, advise the client, and then return to his novel — even if he has broken off in mid-sentence to take the call.

As president of the American Authors Guild, he has had many run-ins with Amazon, accusing the company of ruining the traditional books trade with its electronic reader.

So it is a major irony that Amazon’s e-reader is the Kindle, Turow’s name for his fictional Chicago. “The fellow who began the Kindle programme was from Chicago,” Turow says with a grin. So Amazon might just have picked up on Turow’s name by osmosis.

The closest Turow has come to writing about the war is his stand-alone book out of Kindle County, Ordinary Heroes, which allows a present day-protagonist to explore what his father did in the American army in Europe.
But we meet as he is already thinking ahead to his next novel, and this is when he makes his unexpected remark about the Holocaust.

“As a child of six, I remember going with my mother to see the local tailor, and seeing the numbers tattooed on the tailor’s arms. It was a nightmare for me. Even at six I realised how profound and deforming it was for that to happen to a human being,” he explains.

“So my next book will deal with the issues of how the law tackles atrocities. It will be set at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.” Turow gives me a charming smile and signs my copy of Identical “Zei gezunt [Be in good health].”

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