Each year, the University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal sponsor the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, given to a book which “features the role of lawyers in society and their power to effect change.” This year’s finalists have been announced and I thought it might be fun to review the three novels.
So far, I have reviewed “Proof” by C. E. Tobisman and “Exposed” by Lisa Scottoline.
Scott Turow began his writing career with a memoir about law school, “One L,” and after switching to legal fiction has 11 novels, all best sellers.
“Testimony” is in some ways the most complicated, with the action moving from American law offices and courtrooms to Bosnia and The Hague, where his protagonist, 54-year-old Bill ten Boom, has accepted a job as prosecutor in the International Criminal Court.
Bill ten Boom, of Dutch descent, has been a successful lawyer, federal prosecutor and defense attorney but after ending a long marriage and leaving his practice is, in 2015, at loose ends. The offer from The Hague is enticing and ten Boom could do with a fresh start, some change in his life.
He certainly gets it. In this novel, the murder mystery begins on page 1.
The case he is assigned to is an investigation of what purports to be a massacre, 11 years earlier, of 400 Roma, that is gypsies, in Bosnia. An eyewitness, Ferko Rencic, a gypsy, tells of trucks that came to the shantytown of Barupra, near Tuzla, on the night of April 27, 2004, with about 20 armed men wearing masks. Ferko was hiding in a privy. The armed men killed three Roma who resisted, he says, buried them, then loaded the rest, 400, onto trucks, took them down the hill, herded them into an abandoned coal mine and collapsed the entrance on them, entombing the entire village. He alone, with his little boy, survived to tell the tale.
Indeed, until Rencic surfaced, nothing had been heard from these 400 Roma for 11 years. Now, even though nobody in this novel has a good word to say about Roma, there must be a judicial inquiry.
There are suspects, the most obvious being the satanic Laza Kajevic, erstwhile president of Serbia who is still on the run, wanted for numerous war crimes, many of them mass killings, like the 8,000 at Srebrenica, others smaller but unspeakably sadistic. The war in Bosnia, a three-sided civil war with atrocities committed by Croats, Muslims and Serbs, was an explosion of cruelty.
If the Serbs did it, the motive may have been punishment — Kajevic learned the gypsies had told the Americans where he was hiding out.
But when the Americans raided Kajevic, he had been waiting for them in ambush. Four American special forces were killed, 8 wounded, a disgraceful failure.
So it may have been the Americans, punishing the Roma in revenge for informing Kajevic of the raid on his hideout.
Ten Boom is aided by Esma Czarni, Ferko’s barrister, who is fluent in Roma. Czarni is a mysterious figure, a Mata Hari with whom, after some sensible hesitation, he has a torrid affair.
There is also retired Army Sgt. Maj. Atilla Doby, now a prosperous contractor in Bosnia, whose gender is a mystery, like “Pat, a sketch character on 'Saturday Night Live,' ” thinks ten Boom. Atilla is, we will learn, a mixed race, American female married to a Bosnian woman.
We also meet retired Gen. Layton Merriwell, a charismatic, sophisticated man who reads John Fowles for pleasure, was once commander-in-chief in Bosnia and elsewhere, and was brought low when his affair with a subordinate officer was revealed and his intimate emails published by the tabloids. The lesson on emails is again explicit: regard them as the front page of the local paper.
“Testimony” is 477 pages but is packed with bizarre characters, fresh material concerning the Roma culture, the complicated war in Bosnia, the Hague Tribunals and international arms deals, as well as the old standbys — sex and violence. It was a pleasure.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.