NEW YORK -- It is well known that Scott Turow, the author of this season's hottest beach book, "Presumed Innocent," is a lawyer. It is well known and it is inescapable.

He is dressed this morning in a crisp white shirt, a red power tie, a dark, pin-striped suit garnished with a white breast-pocket handkerchief, and a pair of shiny black shoes. Designer eyeglasses rest comfortably on his brow.

Hands locked behind his head, eyes cast at the ceiling, Turow looks like a man ready to take a long deposition.

"I don't think I knew a lawyer growing up," he is saying reflectively. "My father was ahead of his time as a physician in that he didn't like lawyers long before the malpractice crisis. He is not a lawyerly kind of guy -- he's very emotional, and not terribly articulate about things."

Turow's tone of voice suggests no criticism of his father, only cool analysis. "He just believes something's right or it's wrong. He's not inclined to any of those patterns of thought that lawyers traditionally exhibit."

The younger Turow, however, is very much inclined to those patterns of thought -- the ones that spin 'round and 'round, like a phonograph record.

One approaches an interview with him expecting something else. After all, Turow has fulfilled every literate working stiff's fantasy. After years of slogging away at his chosen profession, the law, he has written in his spare time a bestselling novel praised by critics not only for its blinding pace, but for its elegance and literary resonance.

What's more, Turow has suddenly become very rich; the movie rights to "Presumed Innocent" -- a crime thriller about a prosecutor accused of a sexually gruesome murder -- fetched $1 million, and the paperback sale a few weeks ago set a first-novel record at $3 million.

So one expects the author to feel liberated by his lit- erary success, to embrace that corner of himself that insisted -- despite the comforts of his salary and the previous failed novels and the time demanded by his family and the pressures of his law practice -- insisted, still, that he take a chance and write this wildly triumphant novel.

Instead, Scott Turow talks stubbornly and incessantly about how much he loves The Law. And believe him, he loves it -- the way Bonnie loved Clyde.

"I think you either come with that frame of mind or you don't," he explains, referring to his deep and oft-repeated affection for legal arcana. "For me, those profound questions of how certain societal dilemmas get resolved -- they just reverberate. I find a real excitement in learning different substantive areas of the law."

It would be one thing for Turow merely to say that despite his overnight triumph as a novelist, he intends to continue as a lawyer. That might be a simple affirmation of the life he has built over the past decade -- wife, kids, law practice, house in the Chicago suburbs -- in the face of sudden, mind-boggling success. It would be like the letter carrier who wins $10 million in the lottery on Saturday night and then arrives to shoulder his bag on Monday morning, explaining that there's nothing else he'd rather do.

But Turow goes much further than that; not only does he intend to carry on as a lawyer in private practice with a large Chicago firm, he says that he regards The Law as a kind of modern religion, and that he -- a priest, if you extend his metaphor -- answers to a higher calling.

"Nobody reads or understands Plato's credo anymore," Turow says. "The law is one resonant, moral framework. It's universally subscribed to. It's carrying a heavy weight in this society. I don't think any single institution can bear it. For that reason, lawyers are very frequently criticized. They're in charge of resolving virtually every important moral issue in society."

Not an easy job to walk away from.

What's interesting is that Turow's obsession with lawyers and law comes at the expense of writers and writing; that is, it seems to defy some important part of himself and his career.

"Writers don't have much to talk about with one another," he says dismissively.

And yet it was not so long ago that Turow was a writer himself -- not just a hobbyist tinkering with a thriller on the Chicago commuter trains, but a full-time novelist and creative writing teacher at Stanford University. This was before his career as a private practitioner and federal prosecutor in Chicago, before Harvard Law School, before the constructs of legal theory so excited his mind -- and more than a decade before the success of "Presumed Innocent."

"I was an unhappy person with a very small career as a writer who found that most of his friends were lawyers," is how Turow remembers it.

He arrived at that point after growing up on the affluent North Side of Chicago in what he describes as "an almost exclusively Jewish neighborhood of what could be described, without any sense of being pejorative, as nouveau riche people and tract homes."

His father was an obstetrician -- Turow relied on him for research into some of the novel's plot-twisting gynecological details. Apart from his negative feelings about lawyers, Turow senior's influence was felt because he was "out delivering babies at all hours of the day and night and wasn't around very much. I suppose that's the embedded mental image of the hard-working male that I have become," Scott Turow observes.

By contrast, Turow's mother "is a would-be writer," as he puts it. "She's published one book and taught me a lot of my own regard for literature and writing."

Such as it is. For even now that it has made him rich and famous, Turow finds little to praise in the writer's life. At Stanford, after college, he wrote an unpublished novel called "The Way Things Are" about a draft dodger who returns from Canada to the United States, breaks up with his girlfriend and becomes involved in a rent strike.

"Every time I describe this book, it sounds awfully good to me," Turow declares. "It's hard to figure out why it didn't work better than it did."

Thinking back, Turow sees in the subject matter of this novel the seeds of his love for the law.

"When you listen to it, you hear that I was concerned with legal issues, and rent strikes, and learning about the implied covenant of habitability that the courts had begun reading into every landlord-tenant agreement. I found this a very interesting concept -- frankly, a great deal more interesting than, you know, Conrad criticism or Henry James."

Sensing skepticism, Turow pauses and looks his visitor squarely in the eyes. "I'm sorry, it's more interesting," he says.

So off Turow went to Harvard Law School, there to scratch his legal itch. Before he left, he wrote a note to the literary agent who had unsuccessfully shopped "The Way Things Are," apologizing for her trouble and mentioning in an offhand way that there were no good books about what it was like to go to law school.

A few weeks later, Turow received in the mail a modest contract for a book about his upcoming experiences at Harvard Law. He kept a journal, spent the summer after his first year writing it up, and the result was "One L" -- a successful, semifictional account of life in Harvard Law's freshman class, circa 1977.

Though it critiques Harvard's severe Socratic teaching methods and describes the stresses and strains of its curriculum, the book is mainly, and uncomfortably, about ego and ambition.

"I had already noted in my classmates, and sometimes in myself, a demand for achievement which went beyond a mere orientation toward success or competition," the author observes about a quarter of the way into his narrative.

For several hundred pages, Turow develops this theme through tireless observation and analysis of the propensity of himself and his classmates to behave -- in the classroom, in the hallways, in the library, at examinations -- in a manner that can only be described as obnoxious. The aspiring lawyers squeeze each other out of study groups, hog library books and boast shamelessly about grades, all while Turow ruminates about ethics, capitalism and the legal profession.

"My enemy, that greedy little monster, is still in there rattling his cage," Turow concedes on the next-to-last page. "I guess I will be contending with him always."

For much of the next decade, Turow and his monster involved themselves in the practice of law, mainly in Chicago, where Turow was a federal prosecutor specializing in white-collar crime. Turow played a role in the Greylord corruption investigation, which probed bribes paid to Illinois judges. In that milieu, the idea for "Presumed Innocent" was hatched.

"I was learning a lot about bribery and I wanted to write about that," Turow says.

He tinkered with the material while riding the commuter trains, then set the idea aside and wrote an entirely different and as yet unpublished novel about the reunion of two couples who had known each other during the 1960s.

After thinking through how to resolve some of the thriller's plot complications, he came back to "Presumed Innocent" after a two-year absence. Last summer, he took some time off from work and stitched the pieces together.

The final product moves like a bullet train, a fact Turow finds puzzling. "I wasn't regarded as terribly accessible as a writer, especially as a writer of fiction," he says, referring to his first two novels. "My stuff was thick and heavy and everybody said it was slow. All of a sudden I've written this book that people can't put down."

The central image of "Presumed Innocent," and the axis of its plot, is the bound, nude, molested, dead body of a voluptuous and promiscuous blond prosecutor. At the least, the image is harsh. Gentler whodunits often turn on whether the windows to a room were locked or whether some long-smoldering love affair will be revealed in the final pages, but here the clues have to do with spermicidal jelly and Fallopian tubes.

Turow is sensitive to charges of misogyny, which have been leveled by some critics. ("The important women in the book," wrote Anne Rice in The New York Times, "clearly overwhelm {Turow's narrator} and arouse his resentment.") "If you talk to my wife, you'll find that I'm not women-hating," he says. "But I do understand that kind of concern. I mean, it concerned me -- I changed Mac {a sympathetic character in the book} from a man to a woman in part because I didn't want it to be a book in which the only female images were negative ones."

Such concerns recede as "Presumed Innocent" succeeds; the book is still jockeying with Tom Clancy's "Patriot Games" for the status of No. 1 fiction best seller in the country. Turow will return soon to Chicago, back to the practice of law and to the company of lawyers.

He says that he hopes to work out some accommodation with his partners whereby he can write several days a week when he is not involved in a trial. "I will have to get over my own compulsiveness as far as {law} practice is concerned," Turow concedes. "I find it very difficult, if I have anything to do, to relax, to divert myself to write."

The monster, then, is still with him. In a moment of reflection, thinking of law school, Turow says, "I still look back and I quiver a little bit that I didn't make law review."

Turow says that he is struggling now to find the narrative voice for his next novel. Perhaps it will take a little while, but it seems inevitable that a voice will come to him. This new novel, after all, is about lawyers.

He casts his eyes to the ceiling, reminded of the title of a chapter in his Harvard book -- "Learning to Love the Law." Does it still ring true for him?

"That phrase," he answers slowly, "is not, in my case, inappropriate."