Overcoming Limitations of the Suspense Genre


Few love to hear the sins they love to act.

William Shakespeare

Pericles, Act I, Scene I


Judge George Mason is at a moral and professional crossroad with only three choices for a way forward, none of which offer any hope for his nagging conscience.

George, a former criminal defense attorney familiar with internal struggles between loathing, amusement, intrigue, envy, and empathy, is now an appeals court judge hearing motions about a case that has multiple mitigating factors. The case is old, and the clock is about to run out on the law’s statute of limitations for rape. The politics of the appeal and the particular way he and his fellow judges on the Appeals bench prefer to deal with it, each for his own distinctively non-legal reasons, is boxing George into choices he’d prefer not to make. He is also struggling with dark fears associated with death threats from an anonymous troll.

This is a great start and more than enough to keep readers turning pages, not only in the bookstore where a strong start is a competitive advantage yet also on airplanes, park benches and in bed late at night.  Scott Turow knows his craft as a legal thriller writer. He is a lawyer. He is a #1 New York Times Bestselling author who has published eleven fiction and three nonfiction books and sold more than 30 million copies. He also served effectively as president of the Authors Guild during one of the most challenging eras for writers and authors in history. He is more than an author. He is an expert who can translate legal arcana and ethics into meaningful tutorials for the rest of us.

There is another thing that Scott Turow is – he is a novelist, which is saying he is something more. He practices the craft side of his talents deftly in ways that don’t let the seams, the diversions, and the subtle mechanics of literature show. It is the storytelling side of work that qualifies as literary art. His characters grow before us on the page as they encounter life challenges and reveal themselves in the way they react, sometimes freezing, sometimes fleeing, more often planting their feet and facing up to their fears.

Gail Caldwell of the Boston Sunday Globe compares Turow to John le Carre for his ability to share “an introspect’s embrace of the gray-zone ambiguities of modern life.” It’s a good observation and, as a long-time fan of Le Carre’s writing, I can mostly agree with it. The critical difference for me between the two authors is that while le Carre is deeply wary of the government and the people responsible for its present and future, Turow seems to be more optimistic and forgiving, which results in more neatly fitting resolutions. 

Writing this during these trying times when values such as truth and character are so easily compromised by weak, selfish and narcissistic leaders makes me realize how much we have to appreciate in the works of writers and artists during society’s worst moments. LIMITATIONS was written before our current crisis of faith and confidence in our social institutions, which is both good and not so good. Good because it reminds us that man’s struggle with truth and honor has a long and varied history. Not so good because it enables readers to make allowances for George’s and his enemy’s moral and ethical framework.

LIMITATIONS is a good novel and more than worth its low cover price. 

First Picador Edition, November 2006