Scott Turow takes a long time to get his ducks in a row in his most recent novel about legal shenanigans in Chicago, which, as usual, he disguises as Kindle County. Many people march onto the stage before the novel gets under way, and even then it creaks along. Turow is admirable 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 difficult aspects of the law, but even so Identical is three-star Turow, a ways short of four or five but still smart and wise.
In an explanatory note at the end of of the book, 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.” 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.
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. She was the daughter of Zisis Kronon, known since boyhood as Zeus.
The Gianis and the Kronons are members of Kindle County’s tight-knit Greek community, where alliances and enmities 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.
Now it is 2008 and Cass is about to be released from prison. Zeus is dead, killed in Greece on a fall —or a push? —from Mt. 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. He is also determined to prove that Paul Gianis was involved in the murder of his beloved sister, though Paul is adamant he has nothing to hide.
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 on 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. All the 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. He’s clearly offended that big money can have so disproportionate an effect on American politics. But 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 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 OK 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.
Jonathan Yardley reviewed this book for the Washington Post.