November 8, 2005

Turow trades Grisham for grunt territory with Ordinary Heroes

It’s been two years since the literary world last heard from the popular, critically acclaimed crime fiction writer Scott Turow, and his new release, Ordinary Heroes, has been eagerly anticipated. Fortunately, it proved worth the wait.

Long-time fans of Turow are likely to be thrown by the book-jacket description of his latest novel. At first glance, Ordinary Heroes is quite different from his earlier fiction. It leaves the courtrooms and streets of his fictional Kindle County for battle-scarred Europe during the final months of WWII.

Nominally, the book tells the tale of Stewart Dubinsky, a retired reporter who discovers that his recently deceased father was tried for treason during his army service. However, Ordinary Heroes is largely told from the perspective of his father, David Dubin, an Army JAG caught up in a struggle between a hard-charging general and a heroic but deceitful spy. Dubin traces the bizarre and breathless journey he takes to investigate charges of insubordination against Office of Strategic Services (OSS) agent Robert Martin.

Those who enjoyed Turow’s previous tales will be relieved and delighted by the plot of Ordinary Heroes, which features a generous number of his trademark clever and well executed twists and complications. The mystery is largely driven by the cast of morally ambiguous characters—most notably Martin, General Teedle, Martin’s companion (and Dubin’s lover) Gita Lodz, and Dubin’s driver Bidwell, who are some of Turow’s most complete characters. Though the reader is frequently left wondering who the characters are, exactly, and whether they can be trusted, they are both compelling and multidimensional.

Martin, in particular, is brilliantly portrayed. Along with Dubin, the reader is undecided over whether Martin is a true patriot, a charming traitor, or a man caught up in the search for his own inner peace. Dubin’s search for the truth about Martin, no matter the cost, proves harrowing and bewildering to the end, hearkening back to the smart fast-paced thrillers that first launched Turow onto the best-seller list.

However, the work is far more reflective than a typical bubblegum whodunit. Following the trend set in his last work of fiction, Reversible Errors, the author seems determined to give the reader something to think about, even after all the plot questions are answered. He manages to weave his musings seamlessly into the plot but stops himself from being too heavy-handed about it. We learn the same lessons that Dubin learns through his experiences, each of which winds up feeding into the story’s conclusion.

Turow’s contemplation of the true nature of love, bravery, and the crippling isolation of being a minority are sprinkled throughout the novel, but the most powerful message concerns the unforgiving horror of war. He assaults the reader’s senses in his description of Dubin’s trips through Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge and through a concentration camp immediately after liberation. Readers will frequently find themselves flinching at his depiction of the physical and mental torture of the aftermath of battle—or, in one particularly gruesome moment, at Dubin’s discovery of two half-charred bodies inside a crematorium.

Turow makes this point central to the book by placing it at the heart of Dubin’s debate over Martin’s actions. The book’s stunning resolution makes a clear and extremely relevant statement about the vast power of war to purposelessly destroy. At the same time, by holding the book to a worm’s-eye view of the battlefield, Turow keeps the novel from becoming too political, despite hitting the shelves just as Americans are increasingly coming to grips with the war in Iraq.

While at times there seems to be no particular purpose to the framing device of Dubinsky’s attempt to discover the truth about his father—and while the book is certainly not for the faint of heart or squeamish—Ordinary Heroes is a well-constructed work as a whole. As with most Turow novels, the reader will fly through the pages, impatient to uncover what lies behind the myriad smokescreens. At the same time, the reader will face powerful and thought-provoking ideas about wider concepts. The already popular Turow has apparently found an even better formula for success.