By Scott Turow
485 pp. Grand Central Publishing. $28.
The Bosnian war and its aftermath is an excellent period in which to set a legal thriller because, more than 20 years after the end of that messy conflict, it is still unclear exactly who was responsible for doing what to whom. The war remains one of the bloodiest whodunits of 21st-century international relations.
The breakup of Yugoslavia, and the declaration of independence by the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, sparked interethnic carnage in which Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims butchered one another and were murdered with a brutality and complexity that horrified and baffled the outside world in equal measure. At least 100,000 people were killed, many by systematic “ethnic cleansing.” The fallout and legal accounting from that war continues today. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, was finally captured in Belgrade in 2008 and brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. Last year, Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Scott Turow has set his latest novel, “Testimony,” against this background, swapping the American courtrooms of previous books like “Presumed Innocent” and “The Burden of Proof” for the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. The result is fast-paced, well researched and, like the background it describes, distinctly tangled. This is a crime novel that requires a level of concentration and engagement with international politics some readers may balk at.
After a successful career as a United States attorney and criminal defender, Bill ten Boom, Dutch in origin, all-American in instinct, is having a Force 12 midlife crisis. At the age of 54, he has left his home in Illinois, his wife, his family and his job, concluding that despite all his success, he has never “felt fully at home with myself.” At the suggestion of an old friend, a senior intelligence officer, he accepts an offer to work for the I.C.C. at The Hague and prosecute an unsolved case left over from the Bosnian war: the disappearance of several hundred Roma, or Gypsies, in the wake of the conflict.
The Roma were some of the least recognized victims of the Bosnian war, reviled and misunderstood by all sides, as they have been throughout history. In 2004, Boom learns, 400 Roma men, women and children were rounded up by masked gunmen in the middle of the night, trucked to a large cave and then, according to a lone survivor, buried alive. Who killed them? Serb paramilitaries? Islamist jihadis? The Bosnian mafia? Or was this the work of United States forces, carrying out a revenge attack after the Gypsies tipped off the fugitive Serb leader to an impending raid in which several American servicemen were killed? Teasing out the complexities and actors in the conflict requires considerable scene-setting and throat-clearing. “Do you know where Bosnia is?” Boom is asked at the outset. “East of anyplace I’ve been” is the reply.
Turow successfully recreates the roiling uncertainty of the Bosnian conflict and its consequences, the stew of racism, military aggression and crime, the willingness of ordinary people to visit spectacular cruelty on their neighbors in obedience to ethnic enmities centuries old. Central to his plot is Laza Kajevic, the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader suspected of unleashing his men on the Roma. Despite his disclaimer that “no character is a representation of anyone who has lived,” Kajevic is plainly modeled on the real Karadzic, from his elaborate coiffure to his towering arrogance and blithe brutality. I had the chilling experience of meeting Karadzic during one of his visits to the United Nations, and Turow has captured his strange menace, his “gargantuan self-importance” and “serene willingness to be both judge and executioner.”
The scene shifts back and forth from the killing fields of Bosnia to the quiet bourgeois certainties of the Netherlands, but Turow seems less comfortable on foreign soil than in the familiar surroundings of his fictional Kindle County. In Bosnia he sees “little whitewashed houses that could have been home to Hansel and Gretel”; a building in The Hague is “reminiscent of Disneyland.”
Helping Boom in his investigations is Esma Czarni, a Cambridge-educated barrister, Roma advocate and Gypsy sexpot, with “a great mass of fried-up black hair, … huge, imposing black eyes” and a shapely bosom. “I realized that at some level I had known what was going to happen,” Boom says. So does the reader. “‘Allow yourself, Bill,’ she murmured. … ‘Prepare for paradise.’” And sure enough, he does, falling into an “earthquake of pleasure.” This is pretty harrowing stuff, but thankfully fairly short-lived.
“Testimony” lacks the tautness of Turow’s earlier legal thrillers, and one senses a midlife author attempting, like his midlife character, to find meaning and resolution, and “bring justice to the millions in several nations murdered, tortured, raped, starved and savagely misled” in the course of the Bosnian conflict. This book does not wear its research lightly and tends to inform the reader, a little ponderously, when a lecture is about to begin: “How much pathology you familiar with, Boom?” Then again, few other writers would be prepared to explore the so-called Hague Invasion Act, or have a character declare: “The Service-Members’ Protection Act prohibits any American assistance in an I.C.C. investigation.”
The Bosnian war erupted from a complex concatenation of hatreds. There was savagery by all, and incompetence on the part of the U.N. and NATO. The Roma, as ever, were caught up in the violence. Hundreds of thousands of confiscated arms were shipped from Bosnia to Iraq. What happened to those weapons has never been fully explained, providing the hinge to Turow’s plot.
The Bosnian slaughter offered no easy moral conclusions, and to his credit Turow does not suggest any. “I do not know … what I would do in wartime,” one character observes, reflecting on the horrors of the war. “I am not sure the rules would be very clear to me if it were kill or be killed.” That is true of most people in wartime, in every age.
This is at once a thriller, a story of middle-aged angst, an exposition of international law and an exploration of an intensely serious and very nasty episode in recent history. Like the international court’s attempts to bring retrospective justice to Bosnia, it is imperfect and occasionally confusing, but also admirable and important.