I’m not going to couch things at all.
I’m a Scott Turow fan. I think he’s one of our great contemporary novelists, his considerable talents often overlooked because he writes in genre – albeit one he helped create, the contemporary legal thriller. I stand by my assertion that his debut, Presumed Innocent, is essential reading both for pleasure and for anyone interested in writing; how he pulls off the turns and twists in that novel is prestidigitation of the highest order, and to read it with a writer’s eye is a master class in literary magic. His novels, over the last two decades, have created a complex, morally ambiguous world, a setting – Kindle County – which is not only home to a repertory company of characters, weaving in and out of multiple novels, but has become a character seething and lurching in its own right.
A new Turow novel, for me, is cause for keen anticipation.
All that being said, and in the spirit of continuing candour: Turow’s latest novel, Identical, is something of a disappointment.
The premise is strong, and it has the feel of vintage Turow. In early 2008, popular state senator Paul Gianis is running for mayor of Kindle County. His twin brother, Cass, is about to be released from prison, having served 25 years for the murder of his high-school girlfriend, Dita Kronon, a crime to which he confessed. As Cass is proceeding through the release process, Kronon’s brother Hal, a wealthy businessman, steps forward and publically announces his suspicion that Paul was also involved in the murder. He assigns his head of security, former FBI agent Evon Miller, to investigate the crime as Paul files a defamation suit, hoping to retain his lead in the polls. Miller’s investigation brings her to private investigator Tim Brodie, who, during his career as a police officer, investigated the Kronon murder.
As one might expect, their reinvestigation unearths secrets from the night of Kronon’s death, contradictory elements of evidence which could scuttle Paul’s political ambitions and ruin the names of two of Kindle County’s most esteemed families.
All of which is very promising, but in execution Identical falters.
The novel lacks the depth and complexity which one has come to expect from a Turow novel, the immersion which is key to the success of books like Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof. Instead, Identical is splintered, multiple storylines and narrative threads circling around the central mystery at the core of the book. As a result, the reader is constantly off-balance, unable to connect, and left floundering.
Part of this is due to a peculiar approach to characterization. Almost all of the characters are well developed. Miller and Brodie, in particular, pop off the page with verisimilitude, while Hal is slowly revealed into his full complexity over the course of the novel in a surprising and affecting manner.
Crucially, however, Paul and Cass, the novel’s central characters, remain ciphers. While I’m sure this is by design – and necessary for some of the machinations of the plot – their absence leaves a hole at the center of the book which is ultimately its undoing.
The other key concern is one of tone. Turow makes no effort to conceal that Identical is rooted in the classical myth of the Gemini – Castor and Pollux – and the narrative has overtones of Greek tragedy, but the tone of the novel, the pacing, the devices, are more reminiscent of iterations of The Prince and the Pauper. As a result, the novel has the rhythms of a comedy while remaining resolutely unfunny.
The novel’s most significant problem, however, is one of expectation. Identical is a perfectly serviceable, perfectly pleasant read, an entertaining enough diversion for a winter afternoon. Were it written by anyone other than Turow, I would have read it through to the end, put it on the shelf, and immediately forgotten about it. But I expect more from Turow. From him, good enough just isn’t good enough.
Robert J. Wiersema’s next novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.