An Uneven, Roller-Coaster Read

PLEADING GUILTY By Scott Turow. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 386 pp., $24.

`PLEADING Guilty," Scott Turow's latest novel, is the story of Mack Malloy, who is asked to find a fellow law-firm partner, Bert Kamin. Kamin has disappeared along with $5 million from a secret fund of the firm's top client.

Malloy is 50-ish, a former cop, a former husband, and - by the skin of his teeth and some inside knowledge - a partner in the rich and powerful firm of Gage & Griswell. The location is Kindle County, where Turow's earlier novels, "Presumed Innocent" and "Burden of Proof," were set.

The novel is told by Malloy in a series of tapes he's dictating, ostensibly to the partners, obviously to himself. As the search expands, so does trouble, in the form of everything from a dead body in a refrigerator to revelations about all the book's key players. Certainly Malloy is headed for trouble when he hooks up with "Brushy," a younger, brilliant, unattractive-but-somehow-appealing lawyer in his firm. She's definitely his lover, but is she his friend?

With all this going on, and with so many supporting characters adding depth as well as color, you would think the book would just fly by. But too much of the action is passive. Kamin and his missing money remain offstage for a long time. We keep hearing things instead of seeing them. And after a while, all this talk about money, hidden and transferred, gets a little boring. (Gee, it isn't the 1980s anymore, is it?)

Which brings up an interesting point. "Presumed Innocent" did an excellent job of capturing the roughness and greed of the '80s. "Burden of Proof," even with all its talk of insider trading, showed that Turow knew a gentler time was supposed to be coming.

"Pleading Guilty" is definitely a book for the sensitive early '90s. While not as good as the other two, this novel is all aquiver with discussions of right and wrong and the ultimate questions of life: What makes it worthwhile? Money? Family? A sense of self? A big fat paycheck and a partnership in a big fat firm? Can one start a new life mid-stream, or have we all accrued too much baggage?

Captivating stuff, and in that regard Turow doesn't disappoint. Large sections of "Pleading Guilty" are compulsively readable, and toward the very end, the sheer cumulative power of the plot builds into its own roller-coaster effect.

For this reader, though, a crucial problem was the character of Malloy. He's meant to be an immensely appealing, deeply torn, complex individual, with odd, endearing quirks and a gruffness hiding a lifetime of vulnerabilities. I know all this; I just never instinctively felt it.

As for the book's ending, Turow is taking a big chance and breaking some pretty established rules here. It's exciting to see a writer taking chances, but this time it just doesn't work.

It used to be that one reason writers loved to write was that they had the power to impose some sense of justice on an increasingly unjust world. But lately several writers, Turow included, seem to feel obligated to present the world in all its awful, muddled, unsettled reality.

Readers will have to decide, of course, what they want from an author. All I know is I like it better when fiction wins out over real life.

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