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With 'Heroes, 'Turow makes his case as a war novelist

On Page 1 of ''Ordinary Heroes," Scott Turow's new novel, Stewart Dubinsky is at a funeral parlor, arranging to bury his father, David. It's a common scene, almost a cliche in novels and movies, and readers will probably feel simultaneously drawn in and distanced by its predictability, as Stewart's mother chooses a casket ''big enough to require a hood ornament."

Then, in the third paragraph, Turow zooms in on the funeral director: '' 'Was David a veteran?' he asked. The undertaker was the cleanest-looking man I'd ever seen, with lacquered nails, shaped eyebrows, and a face so smooth I suspected electrolysis."

That quick sketch takes the reader from outside the scene to deep inside, intensely evoking the strangeness and the alienation from reality of such places. And it instantly establishes Turow as a nuanced observer of human beings and the landscapes of their personal dramas, including an instinct for conveying the essential details that turn a novel into a living organism.

''Ordinary Heroes" is a World War II novel, and as such is a departure for Turow, who's best known for his best-selling legal thrillers. But it is also the story of a son seeking to understand his late father. Its part-time narrator, Stewart, is a former newspaper reporter who puts his research skills to work after David dies and Stewart discovers, in his father's bedroom closet, a stack of returned letters from a fiancee named Grace who was unknown to Stewart. Even more upsetting is Grace's reference to David's court-martial in 1945.

Despite David's lifelong unwillingness to reveal himself to his son, Stewart cannot imagine his father of being guilty, or even appearing to be guilty, of treason. But, citing the wishes of his father, who was a military lawyer during the war, Stewart's mother refuses to explain.

Stewart then embarks on a private investigative journey, thinking he will write a book about his father. But his ambitious project is usurped (a nice reiteration of father-son conflict) when he finds a memoir that his father composed while incarcerated and realizes that the book has already been written. That memoir becomes the book-within-a-book, narrated by David himself -- a primary source if ever there was one.

What was David's alleged crime? In November 1944, as acting assistant staff judge advocate of the Third Army, David was instructed by General Roland Teedle to arrest a major for disobeying -- actually simply ignoring -- Teedle's orders. David found the major in April 1945, but then ''deliberately allowed him to flee, at great prejudice to the security and well-being of the United States." Instead of a court-martial for the major, there was a court-martial for David. He was convicted and sentenced; then, without any official explanation, the verdict and charges were withdrawn and David was freed.

The clunky book-within-a-book device adds neither grace nor suspense to the story. But leaving that aside, what Turow has constructed is an intricate combination of action and sentiment, with a dynamic, compelling plot.

The war scenes are remarkable for their newness, almost impossible, I would have thought, in a novel about perhaps the most written-about war ever fought. Again, he does it by singling out the perfect, telling detail:

''In Brou I saw a barmaid set upon by six or seven youths in resistance armbands who cut off all her hair as punishment for sleeping with Nazis. She endured her shearing with a pliancy that might not have been much different than the way she'd accepted her German suitors. She said nothing, merely wept and sat absolutely still, except for one arm that moved entirely on its own, bucking against her side like the wing of some domesticated fowl engaged in a futile attempt at flight."

But best of all are Turow's characterizations, which are full, multilayered and ring true as a tuning fork -- particularly of General Teedle, a complex man whose conscience suffers for every soldier who died under his command -- but who also, rumor has it, abuses his living soldiers in disgusting ways. Then there is Gita Lodz, the major's mysterious female compatriot and possibly his lover. Gita is an absolutely marvelous creation, someone who (and I don't say this lightly) deserves to enter literature's list of immortals.

I've always suspected that Turow's talents were being drained on the genre fiction he seemed to prefer writing. Not that there's anything wrong with courtroom thrillers; and Turow has written some classics (notably ''Presumed Innocent," 1987). But the essence of any genre is its formulaic similarity with all the others of its kind. What it lacks is singularity: precisely the gift that the best writers can bring to their readers. It was clear that Turow could do better, and now he has.

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