Thrilling Escapes from Elections and Covid Woes
The Last Trial—by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing, $29). This legal mystery tells a fascinating story smoothly and compellingly. Turow develops his characters in real, multidimensional ways, turning John Donne’s seeming truism that no man is an island on its head: We are complex individuals who are indeed islands, often mysterious, even as we interact with one another.
Turow has a gift for portraying what could be boring courtroom procedurals as gripping dramas. This allows him not to stint in laying out the full narrative of a complicated trial. You’ll even get the best quick explanation of the differences between civil and criminal cases. His ability to explain arcane material in ways that lay people can readily grasp extends, in this case, to the mind-numbing procedures involved in getting a drug approved by the FDA. He also includes the perceptive musings of older people— all too aware of their mortality—about what their lives have actually meant and what they have and haven’t achieved. This tale has plenty of surprises with upending twists and turns.
Our protagonist is 85-year-old Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, who has had a brilliant career as a defense attorney. Against the advice of his daughter, who is his law partner, and his own instincts, Sandy decides to take on what he knows will be his last case, the defense of a friend, Kiril Pafko, who, like Sandy, is an Argentine émigré. Also like Sandy, Kiril has achieved great success. On the surface it might seem like Kiril has had even more success, as years before he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for a major breakthrough in the fight against cancer.
The federal government’s case against Pafko looks fiendishly formidable. Pafko and his firm developed what appeared to be a miracle anticancer drug, g-Livia. After initial successes in clinical trials, something went dreadfully wrong: Several patients died suddenly and inexplicably. Pafko is accused of covering up the deaths to avoid the FDA’s derailing approval of his drug. When the Wall Street Journal, acting on what appeared to be an inside tip, called Pafko for comment on a big story it was publishing, Pafko quickly sold millions of dollars’ worth of stock in his publicly held company before the revelation tanked the equity’s price. Worse, the government has also charged Pafko with murder. A guilty verdict would mean that he’ll spend the rest of his life in prison. Stern, however, feels he owes Pafko his own life, as he had a certaindeath case of cancer and was saved by Kiril’s drug.
As the preparations and the trial itself unfold, Stern makes disconcerting discoveries about his friend, including that Kiril had had two mistresses who worked for him, and that Kiril’s son, who also works at the drug firm, harbors well-hidden and deeply antagonistic feelings against his father.
That people may have talents and attributes not readily apparent is exemplified by Stern’s granddaughter, Pinky—a seeming ne’er-do-well, promiscuous and sloppily dressed 30-yearold—whom Stern, in an act of family charity, employs at his office to do clerical chores. It turns out that Pinky has inherited her grandfather’s investigative knack. She decides to find out what was really behind the automobile accident that nearly cost her grandfather his life when he was deciding whether or not to take on this case.
A special treat is Stern’s cross-examination of a hostile witness, which starts out dreadfully but turns into an unexpected triumph for the defense because of the diligent digging Pinky has done. All in all, a truly terrific read.
Hid from Our Eyes—by Julia SpencerFleming (Minotaur Books, $27.99). Talk about life not being easy! Russ van Alstyne is the police chief of a town in upstate New York, Millers Kill, who has a sensitive murder on his hands. The body of a nicely dressed young woman has been found on an out-of-the-way road, with no obvious signs of foul play. This is eerily similar to a killing back in 1972, a case in which Van Alstyne himself, then a recently returned and troubled Vietnam veteran at loose ends and possessing a hair-trigger temper, became the prime suspect. He was never charged, but the case has been a weight hanging over him ever since. More puzzling is that this murder turns out to be a copycat of one committed in 1952, which, like the one Russ was tangled up in 20 years later, was never solved.
Russ’s wife and crucial partner is the Reverend Clare Fergusson, a former military helicopter pilot. She’s exhausted from taking care of their newborn son, coping with parish duties and battling—precariously—her previous addictions. Moreover, she has been pressured into taking on an intern, who turns out to be transgender. How are some parishioners in this rural area going to react?
If all this wasn’t stressful enough, there’s a save-the-money movement afoot to disband Russ’s already understaffed department and turn its lawenforcement duties over to the New York State Police. The issue will be on the ballot in the upcoming election, which puts even more pressure on Russ to solve this devilishly difficult murder.
Spencer-Fleming skillfully weaves the narratives of the two cold cases with the current investigation. Even once everything is solved, the weird cold-bloodedness of what was done will chill you. Justice is served, but the book closes with a no-good-deed-goes-unpunished ending that leaves you hankering for the next installment in this series.