Some men cope with a divorce-cum-midlife crisis by running marathons or trading in their Volvo station wagon for a tangerine-colored sports car. Attorney Bill ten Boom, the narrator of Scott Turow’s smart, demanding new thriller, takes a more altruistic path. Forsaking Kindle County, the Chicago-like setting of so much of Turow’s fiction, Boom (as almost everyone calls him) accepts an invitation to be a special prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. As his full surname suggests, Boom’s family has Dutch roots, making his relocation something of a homecoming.
His assignment is to learn exactly what happened in 2004 at a refugee camp in Tuzla, Bosnia, where 400 Roma (or, in less politically correct parlance, Gypsies) were allegedly buried alive, it’s unclear by whom. One possibility is Serbian forces led by their sadistic, amoral and still-at-large commander, Laza Kajevic, described by Boom as having “the same talent as Hitler, making his gargantuan self-importance a proxy for his country’s and his rantings the voice of his people’s long-suppressed rage.” Another possibility is the U.S. Army, which comes under suspicion because the atrocity occurred in an area under American control during a NATO peacekeeping mission.
What Boom knows about the massacre comes from a single source, Ferko Rincic, a Roma eyewitness and the sole survivor. Boom works closely with Ferko’s lawyer and interpreter, Esma Czarni, herself born Roma and now based in London. Outside the courtroom, Esma’s salient feature is her robust sexuality. She comes on to Boom like a tornado, and soon he is having the best booms of his life. Long before the smitten prosecutor admits to having played the consummate fool, the reader sees “Little Miss Gypsy Hotpants” for what she is: a femme with plenty of fatale.
Two other main characters resist easy categorization. One is Layton Merriwell, the American general in charge of NATO forces in Bosnia at the time of the massacre. As Boom interviews Merriwell, the two men take a shine to each other. Merriwell would like to help but must watch his step. Not only does he have classified information to protect and American interests to safeguard, but he is a chastened man whose career was cut short after leaked emails exposed his adulterous affair with a young female subordinate. The sparring between the prosecutor and the general — antagonists who hardly bother to hide their mutual admiration — makes for lively reading, as when Merriwell says, “Let me see, Mr. Ten Boom. How many traps does that question artfully set?”
Another powerful figure is Attila Doby, a retired U.S. Army sergeant major. Doby has become a one-woman employment agency, supplying, in her words, “Bosnian workers for U.S. military support operations all over the Mideast.” That’s what she professes publicly, at any rate. Under the radar, she’s a throwback to Milo Minderbinder, the finger-in-every-pie entrepreneur in Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”
Attila is partial to American slang, but Goos, the Aussie who helps Boom with his investigation, goes her one better. Turow indulges an almost perverse yen for accuracy by larding Goos’s speech with irritatingly obscure Australianisms. In quick succession, for example, Goos talks about one chap who is “ropeable” and another who plans on “dobbing” Kajevic to NATO. (In his acknowledgments, Turow thanks a writer friend for helping the character “speak better Australian,” and the irony, I’m afraid, is unintentional.)
At times, the movements of soldiers and civilians in the Bosnia of 2004 become almost too convoluted to follow, but don’t give up. Just when you’re wishing you had jotted down major plot points, a character will deliver a capsule summary of where things stand. Meanwhile, Turow devotees will enjoy the glimpses of stalwarts from previous Kindle County novels. Why, there’s Sandy Stern, “everyone’s favorite defense lawyer, [now] living in the alternate universe of cancer remission.” And take a bow, Rusty Sabich (the protagonist of Turow’s masterpiece, “Presumed Innocent”), who shows up here “as a judge who was also Serbian.”
The real pleasure of the new novel lies not so much in solving the mystery of the massacre as in watching Turow knock down assumption after assumption made by Boom — and the reader. In fact, I can’t think of another novel in which so many givens end up being exposed as either honest mistakes or outright lies. “Testimony” is a tour de force of collapsing perceptions.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
On May 18 at 6:45 p.m., Scott Turow will be in conversation with John Donvan at a Smithsonian Associates’ event in the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington. This is a ticketed event.
By Scott Turow
Grand Central. 483 pp. $28