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Going undercover in life and law: A talk with Scott Turow
"Write what you know." While writers are told that every day, a writer's work is naturally that much better if what they know is pretty cool stuff. In Scott Turow's latest book, Personal Injuries, the best-selling legal thriller writer takes what he knows - his personal experience as a prosecutor in a major judicial corruption probe - and turns it into a fast-paced and intricate story that is as much about what goes on in people's heads as what goes on in courtrooms.
Turow, author of the top-selling Presumed Innocent and Burden of Proof, draws on his background as a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago to weave a tale of undercover operatives and deception. But he makes the characters - especially Robbie Feaver, the personal injury lawyer who is "flipped" by the prosecution and used as a stalking horse to rein in corrupt judges - as complex as the plot. Instead of creating what could have been stock players in a typical genre story, Turow, as he does in all his books, gives his characters a depth and a humanity that make their troubles that much more deeply felt.
BookPage spoke to Turow about the legal background that led to the story, about personal injury lawyers, and about being undercover - both in life and in law.
BookPage: How close was your own experience [in the early 1980s] to the case in this book?
Scott Turow: A lot of the events in the book are things that I witnessed first-hand. When I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I had a large role in cases such as this one. There was one large undercover project, called Operation Greylord, that was aimed at the judiciary in Illinois. I was assigned to run a decoy, above-ground, highly visible investigation of judicial corruption in one court, while the undercover operation was going on in the criminal court. Then I was assigned to try to flip a criminal lawyer whom we had a case on. All the while, I was in this world of need-to-know. I knew there was an undercover investigation, but I didn't know who they were or what they were doing. I was working side by side with them and didn't know. It was kind of weird. In some ways, this book was the story of what I witnessed and took part in.
BP: Talk about the life of the undercover operative that you observed, and that you put in the book. [Note: One character, FBI agent Evon Miller, spends nearly a year undercover working with Feaver as a paralegal.]
ST: They try to get folks in places where they're as close as possible to their own life. I've known agents who pretended to be Mafiosi or to be fences, which are actually very far from who they really are. I remember a female IRS agent who posed as a Mobster girlfriend for a time. Most of them don't live it for the extended period of time that Evon did. But the guys I knew who infiltrated a crime family in Milwaukee did so for more than a year. It's a tough life.
BP: Working with witnesses such as Robbie must be difficult. You have to ask them to do a tough job, and support them while they do it. Yet you know that they're criminals. How do you handle that as a prosecutor?
ST: Those kind of dilemmas are commonplace when you're a prosecutor. You're always in that position with the flipper witnesses. It's a very ambiguous relationship. You've pursued these people, they want to ingratiate themselves with you to get a lower sentence, you want something from them . . . but you know in the end you're going to stand up in court and ask to have them sent away. What happens is that you develop some complicated personal relationships. You hate their guts when you see them for what they are, but you can also become beguiled by them in a certain way. At the end of the day, you get mixed feelings about standing up and saying, Send him to the penitentiary. Experiences like that were really the inspiration for Robbie.
BP: Speaking of Robbie, you cast him as a personal injury lawyer, the kind of lawyer who often gives lawyers a bad name . . . the "ambulance chaser." What do you think of that profession in general?
ST: As the novel presents, there is a scamming aspect to the acquisition of business by these types of lawyers, and because they have a vested financial interest that gives them an inclination to push the envelope. In Robbie's case, that was pushed a lot further than is right by anyone's definition. All of those aspects tend to bring some personal injury lawyers into disrepute. On the other hand, as the novel is pretty honest about and notwithstanding some of the egregious aspects of their work, many really do care about their clients. You have to give them an enormous amount of credit in this country for having been responsible for a lot of reforms that benefit individuals, especially in the areas of sexual harassment, civil rights, and consumer rights. The plaintiff's bar has been responsible for bringing to heel huge vested interests that were beyond the corralling of the political system.
BP: Two sides to every coin, it seems. That's a big part of this book, in fact of many of your books.
ST: Yes, that's a pretty durable Turow theme. Everyone has two sides. The tension is between the reality of life and who human beings really are. Everyone is pretty well intended in this book, even the "crook" Robbie and the overbearing prosecutor Stan Sennett. Sennett's goals are good ones, he's just over the top. It's the inability of the laws and institutions to accommodate these fine differences in people that has always provided a theme for me. In this case, it's particularly helpful to have that theme. The thematic wedge into this notion is the idea of being undercover, of playing a role, and that everyone is trying to pretend to be something that they're not. ¶
James Buckley Jr. is an associate editor with NFL Publishing in Los Angeles. His latest sports book for kids, Eyewitness Football, was published in September by DK Publishing and the NFL.