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'Identical' Stumbles Outside The Courtroom

Oct 12, 2013
Originally published on October 22, 2013 7:13 pm

The best way I can fairly review this book is to tell you seven things that it is not.

It is not a legal thriller. That would require the novel to be thrilling, at the very least, to compel you to turn the page. In my case, I read the book on a Kindle, and it often compelled me to turn my e-reader off.

It is also not a farce of a legal thriller. That was my initial guess. Think Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors: Improbable coincidences, characters misidentifying one another. Identical is not short on any of those. Then again, a farce by nature is required to be humorous.

Identical is not humorous.

Identical is also not a primer on DNA analysis or Greek mythology, however much it may read like one at times. As Turow explains in his author's note, he had the pleasure of consulting several experts for this book. Unfortunately, portions simply read like a transcription of their chats.

Identical is actually a pretty good courtroom drama, when it's in the courtroom. The novel tells the story of two identical twin brothers, Paul and Cass Gianis. Paul is a state senator running for mayor. Cass has just gotten out of prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. But now the murder is being re-investigated, and when all the detectives and lawyers are standing before a judge, the scenes are, generally, excellent. Turow is sharp as ever with dialogue, clever with legal arguments and positioning. But too often, outside the courthouse, the writing is explanatory and flat.

If I haven't made myself clear, this book is not Turow's best. Maybe my disappointment comes from being an admirer. Turow's first work of fiction, Presumed Innocent, practically established the modern legal novel — expert about the lawyering, subtle about the storytelling. The same way John le Carré, book after book, has made the spy novel into a literary medium, with the word "novel" required for its description. But where le Carré found a second (or third, or fourth) wind when anti-terrorism replaced the Cold War, Turow appears to be coasting.

Finally, Identical is not terrible. Plenty of readers will enjoy it, especially the ending, which is hard to see coming — in part because the author manages expectations well, in part because it's so implausible. But in my case, the book simply didn't meet a standard that Turow had established in my mind. I don't know if that's unfair, but it is true.

Rosecrans Baldwin's latest book is Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Scott Turow's achievements are pretty daunting. He's written nine best-selling novels; several have been made into movies. He's also been president of the Authors Guild twice. And in his spare time, he still manages to practice law, take cases pro bono, and play in a band. Now despite all that, our reviewer Rosecrans Baldwin finds the author's latest novel, "Identical," disappointing.

ROSECRANS BALDWIN: The best way I can fairly review this book in just a few minutes of air time is to tell you seven things that it's not. It is not a legal thriller. That would require the novel to be thrilling; at the very least, to compel you to turn the page. It is also not a farce of a legal thriller. That was my initial guess; improbable coincidences, characters misidentifying one another - "Identical" is not short on any of those. Then again, a farce by nature is required to be humorous. "Identical" is not humorous.

"Identical" is also not a primer on DNA analysis or Greek mythology, however much it may read like one. As Turow explains in his author's note, he had the pleasure of consulting several experts for this book. Unfortunately, portions simply read like a transcription of their chats.

"Identical" is actually a pretty good courtroom drama, when it's in the courtroom. The novel tells the story of two identical-twin brothers, Paul and Cass. Paul is a state senator running for mayor. Cass has just gotten out of prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. But now, the murder is being reinvestigated. And when all the detectives and lawyers are standing before a judge, the scenes are, generally, excellent. Turow is sharp with dialogue, clever with legal arguments and positioning. But too often, outside the courthouse, the writing is explanatory and flat.

If I haven't made myself clear, this book is not Turow's best. Maybe my disappointment comes from being an admirer of his. Turow's first work of fiction, "Presumed Innocent," practically established the modern legal novel - expert about the lawyering, subtle about the storytelling.

Finally, "Identical" is not abysmal. Plenty of readers will enjoy it, especially the ending, which is hard to see coming - partly because the author manages our expectations so well, partly because it's so implausible. But in my case, the book simply didn't meet a standard that Turow had established in my mind. I don't know if that's unfair, but it's definitely true.

BLOCK: Our reviewer is Rosecrans Baldwin. His latest book is called "Paris, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down." For more book news, you can like NPR Books on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @nprbooks. Our program on Twitter is @npratc. I'm @nprmelissablock.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And visit me @npraudie.

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