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Identical, by Scott Turow, Mantle, RRP£18.99 / Grand Central Publishing RRP$28, 384 pages
It is 1982 and twins Cass and Paul Gianis are attending a picnic hosted by Zeus Kronon, father of Cass’s girlfriend, Dita. That evening, Dita is murdered and Cass confesses.
The Kronon and Gianis families had long been feuding, but 25 years after the murder, with Paul running for mayor and Cass about to be released from prison, Dita’s brother Hal begins digging around for the truth about what really happened that night.
Scott Turow, a Chicago-based attorney, is a master of the legal thriller. His first novel, Presumed Innocent (1987), became a movie starring Harrison Ford. His tenth, Identical – in part at least – shows why he is lauded. While its crucial McGuffin – that Paul sues Hal after the latter starts running adverts accusing the prospective mayor of murdering his sister – is unlikely in the extreme, the courtroom scenes come alive. Judge Du Bois Lands, “umpire” in the face-off between Paul and Hal, is an utterly believable figure and the legal twists and turns are gripping.
Hal runs property company ZP, founded by his father, and is currently brokering a massive deal to buy a rival called YourHouse (it being 2008, a Greek tragedy is surely in store). Meanwhile, Hal’s head of security, Evon (pronounced Even), a 50-year-old lesbian former FBI special agent now known by the nom de guerre she assumed on an undercover job, is tasked with dredging up evidence that will prove Paul was involved in Dita’s murder. She teams up with 81-year-old former detective Tim Brodie.
The pair proves an appealing duo as they grapple with modern DNA testing that allows Turow to inject some complex twists based on the similarities and differences between samples from identical twins.
Yet Identical is weakest where it is most ambitious. A note about sources at the end reveals that a real-life case from 1966 involving the murder of one of the twin daughters of wealthy Chicago industrialist Charles Percy, then running for the US Senate, inspired the novel. But also, more importantly, it is here that Turow tells us that the myth of Leda and the Swan was the “fabric on which I did my own embroidery”. In the myth, Leda, Queen of Sparta, is raped by Zeus, who takes the form of a swan. As a result, in one version, Leda bears twins, Castor and Pollux.
Embellishing a perfectly good legal thriller with such literary pretensions smacks of gilding the lily. For all Turow’s “embroidery”, it fails to enhance the tale and his cast of Greek-Americans carry their mythic names like heavy baggage: patriarch Zeus, his son Hal or Herakles, the unfortunate girlfriend Dita (short for Aphrodite, naturally), the twins Paul and Cassian, and their mother, Lidia.
But Turow doesn’t stop there. Zeus’s sister, Teri, notes: “I sometimes think, when watching him gliding around like a swan, that his pride will kill him.” Meanwhile, Tim, a widower, fills his days reading Shakespeare and Greek myths – noting apposite quotes. “Copied this down a few months ago from A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he says, offering Evon a scrap of paper bearing a line that perfectly reflects her fracturing relationship. “You had to love Tim. Eighty-one and studying Shakespeare and understanding it, too.” Hmmm.
The result is a novel that, rather than soaring to Olympian heights, remains grounded, overburdened with symbolism that signifies little and becomes ever more implausible as the story unfolds.