Alejandro Stern is a recurring character in Scott Turow’s Kindle County thrillers. He was the defence lawyer in his most popular novel, Presumed Innocent. In The Last Trial, he is the protagonist.
Stern is in his eighties now, a successful and well-respected trial lawyer, and he is taking on one last case, representing his friend, doctor and Nobel laureate Kiril Pafko, in a complicated case involving charges of fraud, insider trading and murder.
Pafko and his son are in business together. They have invented and manufactured a cancer drug which has extended the lives of many. However, it is alleged he covered up data showing the drug led to death in a small number of patients, and profited by selling shares before a newspaper investigation of the cover-up was published.
The trial has a close-knit cast. Stern’s daughter Marta is his business partner and co-counsel. His granddaughter is their assistant. Pafko is an old friend of Stern’s, bound by their shared experience of being immigrants from Argentina. The judge is a longstanding colleague and friend of both the Sterns and the prosecuting attorney.
The drama of the trial is about not only the reversals of the case, and the confrontation between defence and prosecution, but the interplay of these complex relationships, and Stern’s own acknowledgement of his own declining strengths. He is both at the heart of the case and stepping outside himself, understanding how the courtroom has given him a charisma he couldn’t find in everyday life, how he rises to the performance, but also the increasing physical toll it takes on him.
Turow’s understated style, conversely make this story all the more dramatic. He doesn’t ham up the reversals, in the way that a less gifted thriller writer would. The case is satisfyingly complex, and he doesn’t condescend to the reader, while explaining, through the voice of Stern, the significance of each event.
At the heart of The Last Trial are reflections on the meaning of law and justice, and the role of the legal system, its strengths and failings, in all our lives. The verdict, when it comes, represents the jury’s view of the evidence. The last part of the book (which perhaps goes on longer than it needed to) shows the reader what actually happened, and in so doing, exposes the limits of the legal process in finding the truth.
This is a courtroom drama which also leaves you thinking about many of the most profound questions about law, morality and identity. It is permeated with a bittersweet sense of loss as Stern reflects on his life as a lawyer and the end of his professional life. It’s great to be back in Kindle County.
I received a copy of The Last Trial from the publisher via Netgalley.
View The Last Trial on Goodreads