“It is a sure sign that a culture has reached a dead end when it is no longer intrigued by its myths,” the great American rock writer Greil Marcus once wrote. From my experience delving into Scott Turow’s latest legal thriller, Identical, the culture is alive and well and steeped in those myths.
The crime novel will be the author’s 10th foray into the fictional metropolis of Kindle County and his first since he resurrected Rusty Sabich and Tommy Molto in 2010’s Innocent, the sequel to Turow’s groundbreaking 1987 debut Presumed Innocent. This meticulously crafted story brings back Evon Miller, the duplicitous FBI agent from Personal Injuries (2011). But in an interesting twist, the rest of the plot turns on the ancient Greek myth of Castor and Pollux.
In Identical, we meet State Senator Paul Gianis, a candidate for mayor of Kindle County. His identical twin brother, Cass, has been released from prison 25 years after pleading guilty to murdering his girlfriend, Dita. Heracles Kronon, Dita’s brother, is determined to defame Cass. When Evon Miller, in partnership with a crusty private eye named Tim Brodie, begins to pull at the strings of family, trespass and murder, the reality that Paul and Cass have built for themselves threatens to unravel.
Kirkus caught up with Scott Turow in an airport, of all places, returning from the Sao Paolo Festival in Brazil. During a thoughtful, lengthy conversation, the author was candid in discussing the power of myth, the origins of Identical and the future of the publishing industry.
“The part about writing from someone else’s story was new to me,” says Turow, as flight announcements echo in the background. “On the other hand, it’s set in Kindle County and it’s an old murder and characters who have appeared before appear again, so it’s not entirely new. One of the things that surprises me is that I tell even well-read people that it’s based on the myth of Castor and Pollux and they furrow their brows. I say, ‘You know, it’s the Gemini, like the constellation,’ and people still don’t get it. Knowing that it’s based on a myth really doesn’t give much away except to the most erudite of readers.”
Briefly, and without giving too much away, this lesser-known myth of Castor and Pollux is about two identical twins who are the children of Leda, the Queen of Sparta, and Zeus, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus. Pollux was granted immortality by Zeus, but he persuaded Zeus to allow him to share the gift with Castor. As a result, the two spend alternate days on Olympus (as gods) and in Hades (as deceased mortals). When Castor was killed in battle, Pollux was gifted with immortality by Zeus. However, this loyal brother persuaded Zeus to allow him to share the gift with his twin brother. As a result, the Heavenly Twins, or Gemini, were allowed to alternate between their days on Olympus as gods and in Hades as deceased mortals.
It is true that the appearance in Identical of Greek-based names like Heracles, Dita and Lidia can be a bit jarring, but it also allows the investigators Evon and Tim to be our eyes and ears into the sinister entanglements of the Giannis and Kronon families.
“You’re right in that Evon and Tim have no mythological analogs,” Turow says. “They’re the outsiders of the story, and that’s deliberate. They are, as you say, familiar creatures of Kindle County. I really love Evon as a character and even though I couldn’t explain to you why this lesbian FBI agent kept nagging at me, I really wanted to bring her back. I had a feeling she probably learned a lot since we last saw her, and would be successful in ways that she hadn’t anticipated, but she’s still trying to find her way in terms of making a connection with someone.”
Retired detective and intransigent private eye Tim Bodie, on the other hand, is a brand new character who leaps off the page in terms of individuality.
“Tim had no large frequency role except as the old homicide dick who originally investigated the case,” Turow recalls. “Almost immediately, though, I found myself writing from his point of view. Generally, that’s a good sign that things are going well when there’s a character who ends up creating his own role in a book. The people who have seen it in Hollywood are interested in Time. He’s a neat old guy.”
Turow nods to novels like John Updike’s The Centaur, which uses the myths of antiquity to reflect on the modern age, as well as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, whose touchstone is King Lear. His agent asked if the novel was going to identify with stories like The Prince and the Pauper or A Tale of Two Cities, which are dependent on the true identities of certain characters. But the origins of Identical were actually personal, as Turow’s sister had a twin brother who died in childbirth.
“For reasons only a three-year-old could explain, I was convinced that this twin must have been my twin,” says the author. “It was the idea of gender; he was a boy and I was a boy, so we must have been twins. Whenever, throughout my life, someone has mentioned identical twins to me, there’s always been this little ping in my heart. I was much more interested in this book with what it means to have someone in your life who is not just sort of like you, but exactly like you. They live on a planet that the rest of us can’t understand because we are all individuals. That has always seemed to me to be both wonderful and bizarre. Whether they hate each others’ guts or live next door to each other, it still must be special.”
Turow also dismisses any connections to influential scholars like Joseph Campbell, whose comparative mythology has influenced everything from the Grateful Dead to Star Wars.
“No, I wasn’t trying to write The Hero With A Thousand Faces,” Turow says. “I was much more interested in the theme of what people need to believe about their own lives and how it influences their perception of their own reality. In particular, I wanted to look at the mythologizing that people do around their intimate relationships. I was trying to draw that contrast between the myths that had supposedly been around for centuries and the myths that we inevitably make about our own lives.”
The author is also the current president of the Authors Guild, the non-profit organization which advocates for its members on issues like effective copyright protection, fair contracts and free expression. The group has been notably litigious in recent years, but Turow opened up a hornet’s nest when he published an op-ed in The New York Times this year called “The Slow Death of the American Author,” in which Turow railed against piracy, the ease by which search engines direct pirates to their wares, the devaluation of copyrights, and the unfairness of e-book royalties. Turow was prepared for the backlash, which was fierce, and found critics throwing around words like “luddite.”
“Oh, yeah, I was ready,” Turow chuckles. “What I was saying was that there seems to be this war of all against all going on in publishing and that there are new, different interests that were not there decades before. I didn’t expect everybody in the world to stand up and salute. Most authors agree with me that they’re kind of being assaulted from all sides. That doesn’t mean there won’t be books. There will certainly be fiction, and people will write novels and people will read them. The question I was focusing on was, ‘Will as many people be able to make a living as professional writers?’ I can’t pretend to be completely cheerful about that idea.”
One last note for the critics who were lightning-quick to call down the heavens on the author for his hubris. He loves his iPad, and has two dozen books on it at any one time.
“I’m not a technophobe,” Turow argues. “Not only would I think it would be unwise to try to stamp out the e-book but it would come at a tremendous personal cost. I’m all for the technology. I’m just saying that the technology has changed. Different players in this universe are trying to take advantage of those changes to the detriment of all authors. We’re talking about devaluing books and making it harder for writing to survive as a livelihood. I’m certainly speaking as the president of a trade association but I’m also speaking as an American who believes books are good for the culture.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.