Picador / 197 pages / $13 (paper)
I'll defer cuteness. I won't make a mock plea before a jury of serious readers and argue that Scott Turow's new novel, the paperback original Limitations, deserves to be sentenced to your bedside reading table.
But it does. It's a quieter book than some of Turow's previous best-selling intelligent legal thrillers, any one of which makes a John Grisham novel seem like mighty thin gruel. But it remains an engrossing work of fiction that originally saw the light in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.
Though it's really not a cliffhanger. Limitations, with its wonderfully resonant title, is first and foremost a character study, focusing on Kindle County Appeals Court Judge George Mason, whom Turow describes as a "tall, trim, gray-haired ... [s]tandard-issue white guy." Now in midlife (we first met him when he was a lawyer in Turow's 1999 novel Personal Injuries) and ready for re-election to a new term on the court, Mason finds himself assailed by problems personal and political: His wife is ill, a judge on a different court wants to replace him in the coming election, and he has been receiving threatening e-mails from someone who may be a gang chief whose powers extend far beyond the walls of the prison in which he is incarcerated.
Limitations is also a fascinating study of a legal tug-of-war between victim and victimizers, raising questions about rights on both sides of a crime. To reverse or not to reverse a conviction in a gang-rape case, that is the question, when the normal limits of the possibility of prosecution had been stretched. Or as Mason sees it, as ugly "as the crime was" (and there's visual evidence of the ugliness in a pornographic home video made by one of the perpetrators), the white, middle-class boys who committed it "were prosecuted later than the law normally allows."
Add to this the details of Mason's inner life (he's haunted by an incident out of his past that ties him emotionally to the rape case), his wife's illness, his public duties and the threatening e-mails, and the novel can't help but pull you along.
And on top of all this comes the compelling portrait of the everyday life of the judge and his office, with some neatly drawn characters and the inner workings of an appeals panel, all of which add to the texture of the story. As does a carjacking in the courthouse parking garage that jolts the judge out of his self-reflection into the immediacy of violent crime.
All in all, Turow gives us the judicial world without melodrama, and that seems just about right for anyone truly interested in how that world - part of our larger world - works.
Alan Cheuse is a book commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered," a writing teacher at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of the short-story collection "Lost and Old Rivers." He wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.