When Good Guys Go Bad (And Vice Versa)

Here are two books that I have recently finished. They are both well-written and engaging, but I am left wondering why I want to like the protagonists in the novels I read.

The Last Trial by Scott Turow

This is one in a series of books about defense lawyer Alejandro “Sandy” Stern. He is eighty-five years old and about to retire when a friend is accused of insider trading, fraud, and murder. Stern chooses to take on one last trial.

One of the endearing things about Stern is that he is aware that his abilities are declining and so he draws on the skills of his daughter Marta and granddaughter Pinky. It struck me as a nice touch that Marta is about to retire from the legal profession, too, at the same time as her father. I also liked the way the writer draws out the wit and wisdom of Pinky, whom the family considers to be an underachiever.

Stern’s old friend, Pavel Pafko, is a brilliant scientist who developed a new cancer drug. It turns out, though, that while the first year of the drug’s trials showed excellent results, the second year resulted in the deaths of a number of trial subjects. Pafko is accused of hiding that data. He is also accused of selling off a large block of stock before the data could be made public.

This complex case is presented in stages so that the reader can follow the steps of research, development and testing of a new drug, and Turow integrates it all into a very readable dramatic narrative. In addition to the legal and scientific details, we are drawn into a saga of greed, dishonesty, and family dysfunction through the portrayal of complex characters in a ruthless world.

Before She Died by Lisa Gardner

It took me three attempts to finish this book. I abandoned it twice because I didn’t like the central character, but in the end I had to find out what happened to the girl who disappeared. The story is, at one level, about a bad person doing a good thing. At another level, it is yet another missing girl story.

Frankie Elkin is a recovering alcoholic who has transferred her addiction to alcohol to an addiction to finding missing people. The number of people she has found is not clear; at one point it is forty-eight, at another it is eleven. This detail seems to vary depending upon whom she is trying to impress.

She gathers as much information about missing people as she can through online web searches and in concert with other internet sleuths. When she has found a suitable subject, she travels to their last known location to do on-site interviews and ground searches. In the process she runs afoul of the local police and insinuates herself into the lives of the family and friends of the missing person.

At one point she stalks the missing girl’s friends outside their school and inveigles them into divulging information not previously shared with the authorities.The story is complicated by Frankie being a white woman doing investigative work in a Black neighbourhood and her being viewed with suspicion by both the locals and the police. Given her behaviour, this resistance is not surprising.

As the mystery unravels, we meet some unsavoury characters, some strange goings-on, and some gang violence. Oh, and incidentally, a heartless sexual liaison just for good measure.The cover says it is a New York Times Bestseller, so my analysis should probably be taken with a large pinch of salt.

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