PERSONAL INJURIES

By Scott Turow

Farrar Straus Giroux. 403 pp. $27

Reviewed by Dennis Drabelle

Of all the lawyer-storytellers who have clambered onto the bestseller lists in recent years, Scott Turow is the champ. Not only are his plots absorbing and his characters persuasive, but his sentences flow with an artful cadence. Most important, he trusts his material enough to refrain from engineering that improbable pileup of slams and counterslams that can make novels by, say, John Grisham and Richard North Patterson seem like Hollywood-begotten exercises in what might be called twistupmanship.

Trust must have come easily to Turow in handling the material for his smashing new novel, Personal Injuries. The publicist's handout notes that the story is based on "the famous Greylord case, a real-life sting operation involving judicial corruption that Turow tried and won in Chicago in the early eighties . . . . " Without knowing anything about the Greylord case, I can attest that this novel has the ring of authenticity. It blends widespread graft, a spidery villain insulated at the heart of a complex web, suffering, murder, suicide and also a measure of humor into a narrative that proceeds with the inevitability -- and the surprises -- of real life.

Its protagonist is Robbie Feaver, a rousingly successful personal-injury lawyer who has prospered, in part, by funneling kickbacks to the judges of the (fictitious) Kindle County Superior Court. He and his partner, Mort Dinnerstein, have come under the scrutiny of the U.S. attorney, Stan Sennett, who succeeds in "turning" Feaver: that is, in exchange for a token sentence, he will act as the instrument in a multi-phase sting operation designed to cleanse the court of its several corrupt judges and lesser officials. Feaver, whose life is further complicated by his wife's ongoing battle with Lou Gehrig's disease, hires George Mason to represent him, and Mason acts as our first-person narrator.

Turow portrays Robbie as a lovable lout: a womanizer, a legal hustler, a braggart, one of those flippant talkers who are first on their block to seize upon every latest catch-phrase in American English, but also an affectingly caring husband and son. After he is assigned a female FBI agent, Evon Miller, who will masquerade as his new paralegal while actually serving as his watchdog, his first urge is to make her. When all his moves fail and a question arises as to whether Evon is straight or lesbian, he sets out to break through her reserve. Sex or no sex, Robbie is the kind of guy who wants to like and be liked by everybody, even his handlers, and for all his weaknesses and overcompensations, he is ultimately impossible to resist.

He applies that charm of his to a daunting series of charades. At Sennett's behest, he files phony cases before the suspect judges. These counterfeits have to be plausible but also susceptible to attack by the defendant's attorney before the trial commences; otherwise, the ruse would amount to virtually a Broadway production, with multiple actors playing orchestrated roles -- too many chances for things to go wrong. Typically, the pivotal act is a motion to dismiss: a defense lawyer's pre-trial attempt to persuade a judge that even if the facts alleged are taken as proven, the law is simply not on the injured party's side and thus the case should be thrown out. While the motion is under consideration, Robbie is supposed to tender his bribe, a transaction that the feds hope to capture on film by wiring him with a minute camera and a tiny mike.

You can almost feel Turow's exultation in the staging of these tricks -- there are several of them before the plot boils to a climax. Some come a cropper. In one case, the eavesdropping Sennett, a passenger in a car that is tailing Robbie and a judge in another car, becomes so flummoxed by something he overhears that he yells out, startling the driver, who slams on the brakes, gets caught by a traffic light and inadvertently lets the other car get away. Other setups succeed but whet Sennett's lust to bag bigger and nastier fry, all the way up to the cunning Brendan Tuohy, a relative of Feaver's by marriage -- and the court's chief judge.

Those corrupt judges are a colorful bunch. One is so dumb that his mere presence cheapens the bench, another is a lonely single woman who finally manages to lay down a moral line she won't cross, still another is a sharp-tongued black man who even in defeat keeps dealing out his trademark verbal thrashings. Turow's negative capability is so pronounced that even these, the members of his rogues' gallery, are rounded characters, their wrongdoing both alienating and understandable.

George Mason, the narrator, may be the only character not done justice (as it were). Except for rare interventions in the proceedings, he functions only as a kind of recording angel. And the postmortem summary of the characters' fates in the five years or so after the main action ends seems a bit pat in its allocation of rewards and chastisements. But these are quibbles.

Lawyers like to differentiate between substance, the content of the law, and procedure, the steps by which you make the system work. In Turow's first novel, Presumed Innocent, substance dominated, in the form of a magnificently surprising answer to the whodunit question. Personal Injuries holds no similar shock, but the loving attentiveness to procedure -- the nuts and bolts of that sting -- makes it an absorbing crime novel, perhaps Turow's best.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington lawyer and writer.