The Last Trial (Kindle County 11) by Scott Turow

A wonderful finale…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern is old now and beginning to fail both physically and mentally, but when Kiril Pafko finds himself in trouble, Sandy agrees to defend him. Sandy’s daughter and legal partner, Marta, has decided to retire and Sandy recognises that he won’t be able to continue without her, so this will be his last case. Marta agrees to stay on till the case is over, and Sandy’s granddaughter, Pinky, is also helping out, both with the casework and as a kind of personal assistant to her ageing grandfather. As the case slowly unfolds, Sandy finds himself reflecting on his long career in the law. Having been diagnosed with cancer, Sandy is also facing his own mortality and finds himself thinking back to the people who have been important in his life – his family and friends. Kiril is one of those friends, a brilliant Nobel prizewinner, who has developed a drug that combats cancer with spectacular results. Too spectacular – Kiril is on trial for suppressing negative studies into the side-effects of the drug, and for the murder of patients who, the prosecution claims, had their lives shortened by taking it. Kiril is also accused of having made a fortune by selling shares in the drug just before the negative studies became public. Although for Sandy the main aim is to have Kiril legally acquitted, Kiril is just as concerned about the damage to his reputation in the scientific community, and Sandy finds that their differing objectives mean that his client oftens impedes his attempts to argue the case on legal grounds.

Sandy Stern first appeared in Presumed Innocent in 1987 and I, along with millions of others, have followed his career ever since. Turow has used him over the series to present a thoughtful and realistic picture of how the law works in the US, slowly and not always achieving true justice, but an essential part of the democratic system of ensuring the rights of the individual. Stern’s cases are usually set among the rich and powerful, and Turow clearly shows that justice depends as much on the quality of lawyer a defendant can afford as on the rights and wrongs of the case. The books are always billed as legal thrillers which I think does them an injustice. To me, these long ago crossed the line into literary fiction – they are far more about the human condition in all its frailties and strengths than about exciting courtroom drama, and the writing is of the highest quality. Calling them thrillers I’m sure attracts readers who are disappointed by the slow pace while putting off readers who would appreciate the deep concentration on character, the mechanics of the law and the society that depends on its judgements.

Turow rarely shows the legal system operating corruptly. In most cases, the judges want to do justice fairly according to the law, and the lawyers want to do the best for their clients, whether prosecuting or defending. Stern is a moral man who cares deeply about acting with integrity, even when it would be easier professionally or personally to cut a corner or two. That doesn’t mean he won’t defend someone who he believes has indeed broken the law; like Atticus Finch, Stern believes that justice only works when every accused person has the right to a defence, guilty or innocent. He also knows that even good people occasionally do wrong, if the motivation is strong enough. Sandy doesn’t see himself as either a moral or legal judge – he is a cog in the legal system, his belief in which has perhaps been the greatest passion in his long life.

Raul Julia as a younger Sandy Stern in Presumed Innocent (1990)

I read this one months ago, when I was in the middle of my pandemic-inspired reviewing slump. It was round about the time that the rich nations were deciding on the safety of the Covid vaccines, and the news was full of stories about our various regulatory bodies and when they would get their act together to approve these and other promised life-saving treatments. There were also stories about Big Pharma’s share prices rocketing up and down with every rumour as to the success or otherwise of their version of a vaccine. At the same time as the book was giving me a detailed picture of the stages any new drug has to go through before it can be approved, the real world was confirming an issue raised in the book – that when rumour gets out of a life-saving treatment for a deadly disease the pressure to approve it becomes immense, almost unstoppable. And Turow shows that when companies stand to make or lose billions depending on whether their drug is approved, the temptation to hide negative reports or manipulate the statistics can be overwhelming. He also raises the question of risk – if a thousand people have their lives extended and improved by a drug, how much weight should be given to the hundred who may be killed by it earlier than they would have died anyway? And if the disease in question is terminal, does that change the balance? If a lawsuit means that the drug is withdrawn and the thousand who would have lived die as a result, is that justice? Questions that all seemed very relevant as reports began to come in about Covid vaccines causing blood clots in a tiny number of people, and entire nations stopping their vaccination programmes as a result.

Scott Turow

Although this could certainly be read as a stand-alone novel, it gains from the emotional attachment long-term readers will have developed for Sandy over the years. We are seeing him now in his old age and for those of us who have grown to know him over the years, it’s a nostalgic and occasionally moving experience. He is failing physically, taking the very drug that the case is about to treat his own cancer. Although his mind is still as brilliant as ever, he is slower now, not as able to handle sudden developments on the spur of the moment, and increasingly reliant on his daughter’s support in the courtroom. He too is in nostalgic mood as the end of his career approaches, thinking back and assessing how his devotion to the law may have led him sometimes to fall down on the job of being a husband and father.

A wonderful finale to what has been a superb series. This may be the last we see of Sandy Stern but I sincerely hope that Turow will continue to give us his thoughtful and beautifully written novels for many years yet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle Pan Macmillan via NetGalley.

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40 thoughts on “The Last Trial (Kindle County 11) by Scott Turow

  1. I was thinking that I probably didn’t need another series, and a legal one at that, then you captured me with ‘literary fiction’, ‘human condition’ and ‘highest quality’ writing! The philosophical explorations are absolutely of our time too, though it may take me some time to get to this book if I start at the beginning of the series (as I nearly always do) …

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t tell you how glad I am, FictionFan, that you enjoyed this as much as you did. Turow writes an excellent legal novel, and he writes an excellent story of people. I think that’s what sets his work above a lot of others’ work. He doesn’t forget to develop characters and make you care about them. At the same time, he shows the inner workings of the law. To me, that takes real talent. I agree, too, that it’s best to read the earlier novels in the series, although one doesn’t have to. They’re great, anyway!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was so glad that what looks as if it’ll be Stern’s last appearance was right up there with the best of them, and it was particularly relevant given all the Covid stuff that was going on. His characterisation is fantastic – I really feel as if Sandy is a real person that I’ve known for most of my life. And most of what I know about how the US legal system works comes from reading these – I love that he doesn’t over-dramatise it or have everything turn on one big courtroom scene at the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I do like starting novels, only to find out that one or two aspects not usually made a fuss of in puffs and blurbs have a relevance to some emerging story in the news. It can show that the best novels will nearly always have something to say about our current lives. As this sounds like an almost-standalone instalment I’m encouraged to consider not passing over it if ever I came across it in a bookshop! Great review.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, indeed! Obviously it was purely coincidental with this one since it was published just as Covid began, but the parallels really added to it and actually helped me to understand the approval process as it was happening. This would certainly work fine as a standalone if you don’t fancy getting embroiled in the whole series. Although the characters reappear throughout the series, there’s no running story arc to get in the way of each story.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like an outstanding read! I usually enjoy a courtroom drama, but I haven’t gotten into any of this series yet. Thanks for cluing me in on what I’m missing. Drat, now the TBR will puff up again!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love Turow and am glad I came across him when he was just starting out so that I’ve actually managed to keep up with him over the years! The first one in the series, Presumed Innocent, is great… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s been years (decades?) since I read a Scott Turow novel. I’m not even sure how many (or which ones) I read. For that matter, I think I still have one in my TBR. Your review reminds me that I should probably pull it off the shelf.

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    • I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of his books – I fell in love way back with Presumed Innocent and have followed him ever since – for thirty-five years! (Frightening!) Dig that book out! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. oh dear, I haven’t read any of these and from the sounds of things I need to start at the beginning, but it seems worthwhile, it’s so satisfying when a novel mirrors real life.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I loved Presumed Innocent and have followed him ever since it came out, but I think it was around the third or fourth book in the series that I felt he’d made a sudden leap out of legal thrillers and into lit-fic. And from there on I feel he never looked back…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, Sandy was a bit taken aback to realise his daughter had reached retirement age too! I hope you enjoy these if you get to them sometime – they’ve given me a lot of pleasure over the years!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh gosh. Being somewhat behind, I almost skipped over this post but those 5 stars meant I couldn’t resist and now I’m faced with 11 books no less 😳 To be fair, it was quite clear from the off that this was book 11 in a series so I’m not complaining. And maybe one day I’ll get to book 1…

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  8. I like the idea of a character genuinely aging – that’s something not seen in enough in media. And the question of whether the benefits of a drug or vaccine outweigh the risks is such an interesting though complicated one.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like that too – it’s much more realistic than series where the protagonist remains middle-aged for ever while society changes around them. But authors need to make their protagonist really young when they start or they end up with their character needing to retire when they still have decades of writing life left! Yes, although it was clearly pure coincidence that he chose the subject of drug approval, it couldn’t have been timed better,

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, this sounds completely fascinating and right up my street. It’s one of the things I teach on (legal and ethical aspects of healthcare, weighing up risk and benefit of individual treatments etc) and I am always interested to read a fictional treatment of the subject. I don’t think I’d heard of these books before – is it worth starting at the very beginning, or is there another place I could jump in?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I particularly liked that Turow didn’t preach an answer to these tricky questions – he just laid out the arguments for the reader to think about. I always prefer that to the polemical approach. Really all the books stand alone in terms of plot except one (Innocent), so you could dive in anywhere – this one, if the subject appeals. But I found reading them in order helped me to build up a real sense of knowing the recurring characters, almost as friends.


  10. I’ve only read one Scott Turow novel – ages ago, and I don’t remember much about it. I read it in anticipation of hosting an event with him, and I distinctly remember him saying that he used to write his books on the subway in a Hello Kitty journal he took from one of his kids. I also remember him being very short! But a nice man nonetheless 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ooh, lucky you for getting to meet him! I think he’s one of the best writers going at the moment and, though he has millions of loyal fans, I’m always surprised that somehow he still seems to be under the radar a bit. I’m glad he turned out to be nice in person. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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