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TUROW'S LATEST IS ON FIRM GROUND

PLEADING GUILTY
By Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
386 pages, $24

PITY SCOTT Turow.
True, the man has sold a jillion copies of his first two novels, "Presumed Innocent" and "The Burden of Proof." True, he is a partner in a thriving Chicago law firm. Here is a man who, in the words of Scarlett O'Hara, will never be hungry again.

Still -- pity him. With the release of this, his third legal thriller, it's becoming clear that Turow has joined that strange class of achievers who hit it big -- no, huge -- the first time out, and spend the rest of their careers trying to recapture the moment of glory. Call him the Fernando Valenzuela of popular fiction.

What was it that made "Presumed Innocent" so widely read that George Will devoted a column to describing it as must reading? The book had it all: It was utterly absorbing yet not in the least cheap; it was, amazingly, the novel you wanted to take to the beach and yet didn't have to be ashamed of reading; and most of all, it had intelligence. It overflowed with not just street smarts, but actual wisdom.

The story of prosecuting attorney Rusty Sabich and his ill-fated obsession with his colleague Carolyn Polhemus, whom he was unfairly accused of murdering, had literary value -- not to mention one wallop of a surprise ending.

"Pleading Guilty" (and "The Burden of Proof," for that matter) has many of these virtues, too, but in diluted form. There is an engaging narrator -- cop-turned-lawyer Mack Malloy; a mysterious plot -- Malloy's law partner has disappeared with $5 million; and great insider descriptions of life at a big-time law firm, complete with hypocrisy by the yard and the eternal god of billable hours.

The problem is that stealing's not as interesting as murder, Malloy's not as memorable as Sabich, and the same kinds of plot twists that kept "Innocent" exciting only seem contrived in "Guilty." (And let's face it: The problem starts with the title, as clunky as "Presumed Innocent" is elegant.)

Still, it may be unfair to compare the two. Let's say "Presumed Innocent" is a once-in-a-career fluke and, for a moment, look at this novel on its own terms.

Funny, it starts to look a lot better this way. For one thing, Turow's great strength -- the dialogue that rings as true as an overheard phone conversation -- comes shining through here.

He knows how people talk: cops, lawyers, old guys in the steam bath, lovers. And he's a master at describing the nuances of life in the workplace, whether that be the prosecuting attorney's office or, as in Malloy's case, the kind of high-priced law firm that buys antique books by the pound to give the proper ambience to its reception area.

Here, for instance, Malloy's partners persuade him to undertake the search for their colleague:

"And who's going to do the looking?" I asked. "I don't know many private investigators I'd trust with this one."

"No, no," said Wash. "No one outside the family. We weren't thinking of a private investigator." He was looking somewhat hopefully at me. I actually laughed when I finally got it.

"Wash, I know more about writing traffic tickets than how to find Bert. Call Missing Persons."

"He trusts you, Mack," Wash told me. "You're his friend."

Anybody who's survived for more than two decades in a law firm or a police department knows better than to say no to the boss. Around here it's team play -- yes, sir, and salute smartly.

Turow does this sort of thing so very well that it's quite possible to go on flipping those pages -- sometimes quite late into the night, in fact.

His work is more than merely what reviewers like to call "readable." He knows human nature, how people talk, how they think and feel. And he's marvelously savvy about fin de siecle urban life. In fact, Turow is just plain good at this whole writing thing.

As a result, it's safe to predict that "Pleading Guilty" will sell like crazy, that people will talk about it this summer, and that it may get made into a movie or a miniseries. Who knows? George Will may even write a column about it.

But in the end, all this is not quite enough. Maybe the test of a novel's value -- particularly a popular novel's -- is whether one can stand the thought of rereading it.

"Presumed Innocent" passes that test with ease. "Pleading Guilty" will be read and enjoyed, and left to gather dust at somebody's beach house.

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