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A war-crime mystery drives Scott Turow’s newest thriller

June 28, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
"Testimony," a new legal thriller by bestselling author and attorney Scott Turow, centers around a mass killing in Bosnia and subsequent war crimes trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Turow joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss his inspiration and the research that went into his new work.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: A bestselling novelist takes on war crimes.

Jeffrey Brown has our latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2004, 400 people were rounded up from their homes in a village in Bosnia, and buried alive in an old coal mine. But did this mass killing really happen? And, if so, who were the perpetrators?

Those questions must be decided at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. It’s the setting for a new legal thriller titled “Testimony” and a new setting for acclaimed author Scott Turow, the attorney and writer whose work has sold more than 30 million copies since his debut novel, “Presumed Innocent.”

I’m not going to name all the other bestsellers, Scott, but it’s nice to talk to you here.

SCOTT TUROW, Author, “Testimony”: Jeff, it’s nice to talk to you.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have left behind the fictional Kindle County, the setting that many of us are familiar with, that place that’s sort of familiar, for a much broader palette.

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why?

SCOTT TUROW: You know, I just sort of accumulated a writer’s bucket list, and one of the things, years ago, that I decided I would write about at some point is the International Criminal Court and The Hague, just because I had never read anything set there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you started with the idea of the court.

SCOTT TUROW: I did, for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Something intrigued you about those kinds of trials?

SCOTT TUROW: I had been in The Hague in the year 2000, and had found myself at a party surrounded by a bunch of American lawyers who were saying, you have got to write about this place.

And unlike most times when people have ideas about Aunt Tilly’s watch or their divorce, this sounded like it would actually make an interesting setting.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have the legal background, and you’re an attorney. How much research goes into all of these — the stories that you write?

SCOTT TUROW: A lot.

I’m a year off my usual cycle, because I went to the Netherlands twice. I went to Bosnia once. I had a lot to learn about first the court, even more to learn about the Roma people, and, of course, the Bosnian conflict, about which I was inexcusably ignorant.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, this is set in the aftermath of the Bosnian War.

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s about a group of Roma, often known as gypsies …

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … who are still living there …

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … but resettled there.

SCOTT TUROW: Yes.

Resettled in the fictional world, resettled after the Bosnian War, driven out of Kosovo, and have chosen to live right near the American NATO bases in Bosnia, which were there for a decade after the war to sort of keep the peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have this big story. You have this history. But the way in, as always, is a particular character.

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: In this case, a lawyer from Kindle County.

SCOTT TUROW: From Kindle County.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

SCOTT TUROW: The former U.S. attorney in Kindle County.

JEFFREY BROWN: A very successful man, who — but is unfulfilled.

SCOTT TUROW: Right. Thrown his life up for grabs, says that he has never felt fully at home with himself.

And that helps explain why he’d be willing to leave the United States to work overseas.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that the way in for you, really?

SCOTT TUROW: What interested me was when I found that the United States Congress had passed a law called the U.S. Service-Members Protection Act, which says that the president has authority to forcibly rescue anybody — any American serviceman charged before the International Criminal Court.

So, of course, the novelist says, ah, good, conflict. And so the idea of an American prosecutor investigating, among other suspects, American service members was immediately interesting.

JEFFREY BROWN: We can’t go into all the details of this plot here, but, I mean, it’s fair to say that the book continues what I think I can call your own complicated relationship to the law?

SCOTT TUROW: Yes, I think so.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, as a kind of a both noble calling, but also the — what’s the word, a tawdriness, in some ways of the law.

SCOTT TUROW: Right.

There cannot be any greater challenge to the law than trying to adjudicate mass crimes like war crimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

I keep thinking, in your work and in this one, that most of us look at the legal system as a way to get at the truth. Do you think of it as that, or as a way to get at a truth, or what’s going on there, and what is it that helps translates for you as a novelist?

SCOTT TUROW: Well, you know, I really think of the trial of a lawsuit as an exercise in history.

And people are offering competing visions of what happened in the past. And the justice system is willing to accept either of those competing visions and to impose consequences as a result.

When you think of it that way, it’s a little bit startling, because we want to believe that there is one truth and, therefore, one justice, whereas, if you have practiced law as long as I have, you realize that there is actually a range of acceptable outcomes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Of course, truth these days is a kind of fraught concept.

SCOTT TUROW: Yes, it’s …

JEFFREY BROWN: But it always has been — it sounds like it always has been for you.

SCOTT TUROW: Well, it is in the courtroom.

And it was frustrating for me as a prosecutor. When I wrote “Presumed Innocent” originally, I didn’t say who had committed the crime. And I had a long heart-to-heart with myself about the purpose of the mystery. And one thing the mystery does is deliver to us a certainty that life and the courtroom very often can’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has that continued? Because I actually saw an interview where you said, “I’m a big believer in the fact that all authors really write only one book.”

SCOTT TUROW: Right. I think that’s true.

And the older I get, the more I’m trying to figure out what the book is and why. I know that, in a book like “Testimony,” issues like identity are enormously important. No character is fully at home.

And I have a hard time isolating what it is in myself that makes me so fascinated with that theme, because I came from a normal upper middle-class family. And yet, as I look back at my books, the uses of power, issues of identity, they have — it’s recurrent. It happens again and again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, a lot of people continue to read your one book in its many forms, right?

(LAUGHTER)

SCOTT TUROW: Fortunately for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Good for you.

SCOTT TUROW: I’m grateful to all of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new one is “Testimony.”

Scott Turow, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

SCOTT TUROW: Jeff, it’s good to talk to you, too.

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