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"Nate, you are a scoundrel."
That line from about half way through the novel rings in my mind because it is so odd, so old fashioned, so stilted. Telling some dinner guests the line recently provided us with lots of laughter as we used the word "scoundrel" throughout the rest of the evening at the restaurant. "Would you like more wine?" "Bob, you are a scoundrel!" Most agreed they had not run into the word "scoundrel" since reading 19th century British literature. But, in context the word in Turow's novel is supposed to indicate something about his protagonist: Alejandro Stern, viz. that he has based his vocabulary on that 19th century Brit Lit. A pompous, self-centered, self-important, hard working, lawyer and father, who is not the brightest knife in the drawer, Stern comes home one day to find his wife Clara dead in her car in the garage. Immediately a host of questions arise that must be sorted out: is it suicide? how did she die? why did she die? why does her son insist that there be no autopsy? how did the family miss the signs of anguish and alienation? Each ensuing chapter adds more questions about the death, the estate, the reasons for the various family dynamics that are presented in great detail.
"Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is devastated by the loss of his wife of 31 years. As he prepares for the funeral, his brother-in-lawf Dixon Hartnell is served with a federal subpoena investigating unscrupulous business practices surrounding his brokerage firm. Stern acts as counsel for Dixon and suspects there is a whistle-blower inside Dixon's financial firm. The machinations of brokers and their lawyers ring true - especially in the aftermath of the current financial melt-down.
Inexplicably, Clara's estate is missing roughly $850,000. Little by little, mysterious pieces of his wife's secret life comes to Stern's attention. He consoles his neighbour Fiona as her marriage to philandering Dr. Nate Cawley, Clara's doctor, is falling apart. Radczyk, a helpful contact in the police department, digs up Clara's medical records only to find she had genital herpes. The only respite from the pain and sorrow of his shattered life is Stern's work on the upcoming case against Dixon. Dr. Cawley is lying about Clara's condition and Stern thinks Clara got the illness from Nate Cawley (hence the "Nate, you are a scoundrel" line when they finally meet).
Stern's son Peter, a doctor, gets involved. Stern won't divulge why he is worried he may have herpes. Stern's not too bright son-in-law John works for Dixon and is now served a subpoena, but hires lawyer Mel Tooley, whom Stern despises. More incriminating evidence about Dixon and a Wunderkind Account surfaces and Stern tells Dixon he will go to prison. Stern confronts Cawley, but it is the doctor who believes that Stern has slept with his wife Fiona. Stern is actually in a relationship with Helen Dudak, who helps him by providing great sex. Stern is served a subpoena for documents he knows Dixon has in a safe. Stern hires his daughter Marta to represent him. Stern falls for the pregnant prosecutor who is trying the case for the government. He also has sex with Margie, one of Dixon's employees from Oklahoma who is proud of her achievements.
Complications ensue. Conflicts abound. Finally a dénouement.
As Aristotle pointed out in the Poetics, fictional narrative shows us the "kind of thing that would happen" to characters. In other words fictional narrative need not refer to the real world but it does require hypothetical plausibility in order to be successful. Some of the time in The Burden of Proof that necessary ingredient is missing. Stern seems slow to comprehend what is fairly obvious early on. His sexual exploits seem completely gratuitous, as if the formula requires so many sex acts to satisfy the editor of this New York Times best-seller first published in 1990. On the other hand the lawyer talk and the grand jury hearings sound quite accurate perhaps because Scott Turow is a writer and attorney. He is the author of seven best-selling novels: Presumed Innocent (1987) [adapted for the movie of the same title with Harrison Ford], The Burden of Proof (1990), Pleading Guilty (1993), The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), Personal Injuries (1999), Reversible Errors (2002) and Ordinary Heroes (2005). His works of non-fiction include One L (1977) about his experience as a law student, and Ultimate Punishment (2003), a reflection on the death penalty.
In an interview published on the Hachette web page Turow says he has a view of the novel "as being governed principally by plot and bringing out the characters within the conditions that the plot proves. It's like building on the land between the streets. You'd look at Dickens and say that he's a novelist who created robust characters without giving up his principal mission as a storyteller. So I have always recognized a large Dickensian influence in my writing. Did I read a ton of Dickens? Yes, absolutely, as a child. Did I read it with particular relish or appreciation? No."
Certainly one of the lessons he took from Dickens, whose novels were published in serial form, is never to use few words if you can use many.
The reader of the audio book, John Bedford Lloyd, does an adequate job of oral interpretation which makes the twenty hours of text go by in about twenty hours.
© 2010 Bob Lane
Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.