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Book facts
By Scott Turow
Grand Central
371 pages, $28

Twins’ travails make for good, not great, Turow

Scott Turow takes a long time to get his ducks in a row in this, his most recent novel about legal shenanigans in Chicago, which as usual he disguises as Kindle County. He has a great many people to march onto the stage before the novel can really get under way, and even then it creaks along.

I’d put “Identical” down as three-star Turow, a ways short of four or five but still smart and wise.

In an explanatory note, Turow says it was inspired in part by “one of the most touching of the Greek myths, the story of the Gemini, Castor and Pollux.”

He writes: “The identical twins were said to have been born after their mother Leda, Queen of Sparta, was raped by Zeus. … The sole difference between the twins was that Pollux was immortal, like his father, while Castor, like his mother, was not. When Castor was fatally wounded, Pollux could not bear the loss and asked Zeus to let him share his immortality with his twin. The brothers therefore alternated time in Hades and on Mount Olympus.”

The twins in “Identical” are Paul and Cass Gianis, middle-aged men whose lives have taken starkly different paths. Paul is majority leader of the state senate and favorite to become Kindle’s next mayor; “his long face had been weighted by time in that way that somehow looked good only on men, who ended up appearing wiser, nobler and ergo more fit for power.”

Cass, on the other hand, pleaded guilty in 1983 to the murder of his girlfriend, Dita Kronon, a grisly crime that took place in her bedroom, “leaving a trail of blood and glass.” She was the daughter of Zisis Kronon, known as Zeus.

The Gianises and the Kronons are members of Kindle County’s tight-knit Greek community. For years they were the closest of friends, but then Mickey Gianis, the twins’ father, proprietor of a small grocery store, exploded in anger “about his lease, which was now held by Zeus, who’d bought up most of the commercial property in the old neighborhood.”

Now it is 2008, and Cass is about to be released from prison. Zeus is dead, killed in Greece on a fall – or a push? – from Mount Olympus while taking Dita’s casket there for burial. His son Hal, older than the twins, runs ZP Real Estate Investment Trust and has made it into a billion-dollar proposition but is in a state of constant agitation:

“Zeus had been a force, smart and magnetic and handsome. ... Hal was none of those things, and he knew how often others remarked on the unfavorable comparison.”

He is also determined to prove that Paul Gianis was somehow involved in the murder of his beloved sister. His motives are part personal, part political. Tim Brodie, an 81-year-old private investigator long retired from the police department who is on retainer to ZP, helps in the search.

They track down Paul’s ex-girlfriend, who agrees to make a videotape that hints at an incomplete story. Hal makes it the centerpiece of a TV ad and uses his deep pockets to blast it all over Kindle.

Still, Paul is adamant that he has nothing to hide. Against his own best instincts, he allows his campaign managers to file suit against Hal for defamation, and with that, the story is off and running.

Turow knows the law, knows politics, knows Chicago. When “Identical” is dealing with those subjects, it is at its best. It’s also good on DNA testing and prosthetics, subjects he weaves into the novel in convincing ways.

He is less convincing when it turns to private matters, especially amatory ones. Everybody in the novel has love trouble or sex trouble, usually both, and Turow’s prose drifts into maudlin territory in too much of this.

Turow almost always has larger matters in mind when he starts a novel, and “Identical” is no exception. It clearly offends him that big money can have so disproportionate an effect on politics, and he views with distaste Hal’s attempt to obliterate Paul’s campaign through the sheer force of money.

It seems to me, though, that he has handled large themes more sure-handedly in his previous novels and that his treatment of big money in politics here has a slightly pro forma feel to it.

Still, as the novel makes its way to its conclusion, it picks up speed and interest. His plot is characteristically complicated, and he wraps things up in satisfactory fashion. I admit I figured out well in advance who did it, but I’m not telling.

Jonathan Yardley reviews books for Washington Post Book World.