Baby boomer angst meets "Greatest Generation" courage in "Ordinary Heroes," the new novel by Scott Turow, the man who revived the courtroom drama in the late 1980s. After tinkering with legal thrillers for nearly two decades, Turow here tries something very different.
Stewart Dubinsky, a retired Kimble County crime reporter, is going through the effects of his father, David, things after his funeral, when he comes across some papers indicating that his World War II veteran dad had been court-martialed after the war. There's also a letter to David from a jilted fiancee Stewart had never known about.
His mother is tight-lipped, saying that she had promised her husband to never talk about these events. Naturally, Stewart begins his own investigation over the objections of his mother and his sister, and he lies to his father's military appointed attorney - now a state supreme court justice - in order to violate his father's wishes.
Stewart uncovers an account written by his father, which forms the majority of "Ordinary Heroes." Turow mainly stays with David's story, with Stewart breaking in every so often to tell us how he found the next portion of his father's rather conveniently written -- and not terribly well hidden - private manuscript.
David is a patriotic young Jewish volunteer who left behind a rich Protestant fiancee after Pearl Harbor to fight the Japanese. Because he had a law degree, however, he was assigned to the JAG corps and sent to Europe. His first major assignment after some rather routine duty is to investigate Robert Martin, an enigmatic and dashing OSS saboteur.
Martin has been ignoring the directives of the rather strange General Teedle, who becomes David's mentor, despite some horrific rumors about his personal life. David questions Martin and his partner, the attractive and brave Gita Lodz, and becomes taken with Martin's mystique - and smitten with Gita, Martin's former lover.
After seeing the pair in action, David reports favorably, but that's not enough for Teedle. He accuses Martin of being a Soviet agent and orders David to arrest him, which is easier said than done. Martin is involved in operations on the front lines, and the lines are changing rapidly as the German counteroffensive known as the Battle of the Bulge has broken out.
David is thrust into battle, acquits himself well and eventually catches up with Martin and Gita. After arresting Martin, David allows the agent to escape and faces court-martial himself.
You might think it's unconscionable to discuss so many details of the story in a review, but, thanks to Turow's clumsy framing device, virtually every bit of this information is revealed in the opening chapters. This drains the suspense right out of the novel, making the only question not what will happen but why.
We even know that David comes through the crises to lead such a normal life back home that his son is stunned to find out about his father's past. Turow's stubborn insistence that everything he writes be a continuation of the Kimble County world he created in 1987's "Presumed Innocent" (in which Stewart Dubinsky also appeared) serves him badly here. A straight-ahead war story would have worked better even with the story's unlikelier elements and reliance on cliches.
Despite David's participation on a mission with Martin and Gita to blow up a German supply dump, the story doesn't really take off until his parachute jump into the front lines, just in time for the Germans to overrun his position in the Battle of the Bulge. The battle scenes are gripping, and Turow effectively conveys the terror and confusion of first-time combat, along with the extreme conditions of fighting in the winter while cut off from friendly supply lines.
Even that part of the book, however, is problematic, as the setup requires quite a suspension of disbelief. It's darned unlikely that a JAG lawyer who hasn't handled a rifle since basic training and is making his first parachute jump would be the first choice to bring in a daring covert OSS agent whose loyalties are suspect.
Furthermore, the outcome of the romantic triangle will surprise only someone who hasn't heard of Ernest Hemingway. If you want a vivid description of life as a grunt in 1944, any random chapter of Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers" will give you more insight than this whole book.
You have to give Scott Turow credit for trying something different, and the more the story strays from his usual, the more effective it is. Unfortunately, the same baby boomer issues that have been the theme of a lot of his work are intrusive here and rob the real story of much of its force.