Scott Turow takes a long time to get his ducks in a row in this, his most recent novel about legal shenanigans in Chicago, which as usual he disguises as Kindle County. He has a great many people to march onto the stage before the novel can really get underway, and even then it creaks along. I am a great admirer of Turow — for his storytelling ability, for his compassion for the people in our country who get rolled into the gutter, for his uncanny ability to explain aspects of the law that clucks such as I will never in a zillion years understand — but that doesn’t make every novel of his as good as every other. I’d put “Identical” down as three-star Turow, a ways short of four or five but still smart and wise.
In an explanatory note at the end of “Identical,” Turow says it was inspired in part by “one of the most touching of the Greek myths, the story of the Gemini, Castor and Pollux.” He writes: “The identical twins were said to have been born after their mother Leda, Queen of Sparta, was raped by Zeus, who had taken the form of a swan to catch her unaware. The myth has many variations, but one of the most common is that the sole difference between the twins was that Pollux was immortal, like his father, while Castor, like his mother, was not. When Castor was fatally wounded, Pollux could not bear the loss and asked Zeus to let him share his immortality with his twin. The brothers therefore alternated time in Hades and on Mount Olympus.”
The twins in “Identical” are Paul (“P” as in Pollux) and Cass (“C” as in Castor) Gianis, middle-aged men of great vigor and intelligence whose lives have taken starkly different paths. Paul is majority leader of the state Senate and heads-on favorite to become Kindle’s next mayor; he is “a nice-looking man, fit, a tad better than six feet, with a mountain of black hair,” and “his long face had been weighted by time in that way that somehow looked good only on men, who ended up appearing wiser, nobler and ergo more fit for power.” Cass on the other hand has spent the past quarter-century in the Hillcrest Men’s Penal Facility, a minimum-security institution. In 1983 he pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, Dita Kronon, a grisly crime that took place in her bedroom, “leaving a trail of blood and glass.” She was the daughter of Zisis Kronon, known since boyhood as Zeus, the name he chose because schoolmates teased him for having a “sissy” name.
The Gianis and the Kronons are members of Kindle County’s tight-knit Greek community, where alliances and enmities both run deep. For years they were the closest of friends, but then Mickey Gianis, the twins’ father, proprietor of a small grocery store, exploded in anger “about his lease, which was now held by Zeus who’d bought up most of the commercial property in the old neighborhood” as part of his ongoing campaign to gain control of all shopping centers in the Kindle area. It’s an undertaking that has made Zeus a very rich man, but the case has driven the two families apart.
Now it is 2008, and Cass is about to be released from prison. Zeus is dead, killed in Greece in a fall — or a push? — from Mount Olympus while taking Dita’s casket there for burial. His son Hal, older than the twins, needy and demanding, runs ZP Real Estate Investment Trust and has made it into a billion-dollar proposition, but he exists in a state of constant agitation:
“Zeus had been a force, smart and magnetic and handsome. . . . Hal was none of those things and he knew how often others remarked on the unfavorable comparison. As a result, his life, in considerable measure, was dedicated to a losing competition with his father’s ghost. Hal never spoke ill of Zeus. In fact, he quite often described his father as ‘a god,’ for whom he genuinely seemed to hold limitless affection and respect. But he was determined to prove that his own success was not due to what he had inherited.”
He is also determined to prove that Paul Gianis was somehow involved in the murder of his beloved sister. His motives are part personal, part political. He believes that the Gianis twins are so tight that whatever one does, the other is complicit in it; he is also a hard-right-wing Republican who dislikes the liberal-Democratic Paul on purely ideological grounds and does not want him to be elected mayor. So he asks Evon Miller, his senior vice president for security, to look into the old case, and she in turn asks for help from Tim Brodie, an 81-year-old private investigator long retired from the police department who is on retainer to ZP, to help her in the search. They track down Paul’s ex-girlfriend, who agrees to make a videotape that at least hints at an incomplete story; Hal has it made the centerpiece of a television ad and uses his deep pockets to blast it all over Kindle.
He isn’t the only one with suspicions. Mark Crully, Paul’s hired-gun political strategist, thinks along the same lines: “Gianis was hiding something. That was the real problem. You could bad-mouth the press, and the campaign-finance laws, and say politics was all flim-flam, and be right 90 percent of the time, but hard truths, big truths about candidates, often emerged in campaigns. It was like performing brain surgery with a jackhammer. But it was getting clearer every day that there was something Gianis wasn’t telling.”
Still, Paul is adamant that he has nothing to hide. Against his own best instincts he allows his campaign managers to file suit against Hal for defamation, and with that the story is off and running.
Turow knows the law, knows politics, knows Chicago. When “Identical” is dealing with those subjects, it is at its best. It’s also good on DNA testing and prosthetics, subjects he weaves into the novel in convincing ways. He is less convincing when it turns to private matters, especially amatory ones. Everybody in the novel has love trouble or sex trouble, usually both, and Turow’s prose drifts into maudlin territory in too much of this. Evon Miller is an extremely likable character, but the tense relationship with her lesbian lover goes on interminably and too soon becomes tiresome. Ditto for Tim Brodie’s lamentations over the great hole left in his life by the death of the wife he loved so deeply. All of these entanglements and emotions are real enough, but Turow simply isn’t as confident writing about them as he is when he’s in the courthouse or the boardroom.
Turow almost always has larger matters in mind when he starts a novel, and “Identical” is no exception. It clearly offends him that big money can have so disproportionate an effect on American politics, and he clearly views with distaste Hal Kronon’s attempt to obliterate Paul’s campaign through the sheer force of money. It seems to me, though, that he has handled large themes more sure-handedly in his previous novels — perhaps most notably the pursuit of truth in “Presumed Innocent” and the interconnection of work and self in “Burden of Proof” — and that his treatment of big money in politics here has a slightly pro forma feel to it.
Still, Turow is Turow. As the novel makes its way to its conclusion, it steadily picks up speed and interest. His plot is characteristically complicated — some readers may find some parts of it implausible, though they were okay by me — and he wraps things up in satisfactory fashion. I admit that I did figure out well in advance who did it, but I’m not telling.
By Scott Turow
Grand Central 371 pp. $28