Scott Turow has been called the father of the modern legal thriller, and he lived up to the title with his latest novel, The Last Trial. The instant New York Times bestseller—which is now available in paperback—is a send-off to a beloved character, lawyer Sandy Stern who first appeared in Turow’s iconic, Presumed Innocent. Turow’s novels have sold more than 30 million copies and been adapted into numerous movies and television projects. Beyond that, Turow is an accomplished lawyer and advocate for legal reform. Were that not enough, he’s a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band made of up famous writers—including Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan, and others—who had a recent reunion to help raise money for booksellers struggling during the pandemic.
Despite his breakneck schedule, Turow took time out to talk to a new name in the genre, Alex Finlay, the author of Every Last Fear, which Newsweek, Goodreads, BuzzFeed, PopSugar, among many others, have designated as one of the most anticipated books of 2021. The book is an Amazon Editors’ selection for one of the best thrillers for March, as well as both a LibraryReads and Indie Next pick. In the novel, a family made infamous by a Netflix true-crime documentary are found dead while vacationing in Mexico, leaving a surviving son, NYU student Matt Pine, to uncover the truth about their final days
Scott Turow: I’ve seen Every Last Fear referred to as a psychological thriller, but Lisa Gardner ranked it as one of the best legal thrillers of the year. Where do you think the book falls?
Alex Finlay: Like a lot of thrillers, I don’t think Every Last Fear fits neatly into only one subcategory. For instance, your latest The Last Trial, is a legal thriller—with some of the finest courtroom scenes in memory—but it’s also a poignant story about a family, aging, and friendship. At its heart, Every Last Fear is a story about a family—one torn apart, and brought back together, by tragedy.
That said, the book has a legal component since it centers on two questions: Was the oldest son in the Pine family wrongfully convicted of murder as a Netflix documentary suggests? And does the conviction or documentary have anything to do with another tragedy you learn about in the first line of the story?
Scott Turow: I want to unpack that a bit. First, let’s start with that first line—“They found the bodies on a Tuesday”—which a lot of readers are saying pulled them in. How did you come up with it?
Alex Finlay: I was on holiday and unwittingly booked an eco-hotel off the beaten path in a vacation hotspot, Tulum, Mexico. I’m a city person, and being out in the middle of woodland anywhere would be unnerving, even in a safe place like Tulum. One night, in the dark (they shut down the lights around ten) and amid the sounds of the jungle, I watched true-crime documentaries on my laptop, so murder was on my mind. And I separately read a news story about tourists dying suspiciously while traveling abroad. Around midnight I tapped out the first line, then the chapter about a family being discovered in an isolated Tulum rental dead from an apparent gas leak. But was it really a gas leak?
Alex Finlay: I’ll ask you the same question: How’d you come up with the opening lines for The Last Trial? (“A woman screams. Shrill and desolate, the brief sound rips through the solemn hush in the corridors of the old federal courthouse.”)
My editor, Ben Sevier, proposed the prologue after I thought the book might be done. I wasn’t sure it was a great idea, but I thought I’d give two hours to it, at which point the pages came out virtually intact, including the first line.
Scott Turow: Back to the legal thriller connection. You note that the backdrop of the book involves a possible wrongful conviction, and you obviously did your research. Did anything surprise you?
Alex Finlay: I was shocked at how often people, especially teenagers, confess to crimes they didn’t commit. It’s just hard for most people to fathom that an innocent person would make a false confession. I had to dig deep into the studies on wrongful convictions because Matt Pine’s father is a crusader on the subject. I drew heavily from Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted (Liveright, 2017), where in the introduction you made the critical point that wrongful convictions don’t just result from bad actors—even good people in the system make mistakes that have horrible consequences for defendants.
Alex Finlay: You’ve actually helped free someone wrongfully convicted—what’s the most surprising thing you’ve found about the phenomenon of wrongful convictions? And has that informed any of your books?
When I was on the Illinois Capital Punishment Commission, we found that wrongful convictions often have a lot in common. High pressure on cops and prosecutors to find a culprit. Hotbox interrogations of suspects, where false confessions often spring from cops providing details of the crime. Confirmation bias among investigators where they can’t keep from trying to turn their hunches into prophecies by hammering the evidence into a shape to fit. And a disappointing inability to say, I’m wrong, when facts begin to prove them wrong.
Scott Turow: The docu-series in the novel was a national sensation, like Netflix’s Making a Murderer or the Serial podcast. Do you think these types of shows help or hurt the system?
Alex Finlay: I think they can help and hurt. Every Last Fear isn’t based on any real case or show, it’s just an amalgamation of the types of documentaries that have become a mainstay. But these shows can show the ugly underbelly of the system, where false confessions are very real, eyewitness testimony highly inaccurate, and so on. Shining a light can lead to systemic reform.
On the other hand, the documentaries can cause collateral damage—backlash against entire towns, individuals being convicted on social media without due process. I tried to explore the good and bad in the novel and what happens to the subjects of the documentaries in the aftermath.
Also, some argue that because these shows aim at entertaining, the storytelling process can distort the truth. In Every Last Fear, I play on that and contrast the docu-series’ portrayal of Danny as an innocent man with his younger brother Matt’s belief that his brother is guilty of the crime.
Scott Turow: I’m working with ABC right now on a similar show, about the ill-fated investigation of the brutal murder of a young woman, Angie Dodge, in Idaho Falls many years ago. There are some familiar elements—false confession, wrongful conviction—and some unexpected turns with the victim’s heroic mom, Carol Dodge, and new uses of DNA. The show’s expected to air on March 5.
Alex Finlay: Speaking of Matt, I found it challenging and fun to write a young protagonist. One of my favorite characters in The Last Trial is Sandy Stern’s granddaughter, Pinky. Was she a challenge to write?
Scott Turow: Not at the time. I like to say that I always know a novel is going well, when a character appears and tries to run away with the book. That was Pinky. Indeed, that’s who Sandy Stern was 35 years before.
Alex Finlay: I’d love to see Pinky the star of her own book—any chance of that happening?
As we speak.
Scott Turow: What about you, how will you follow up on what I think correctly has been described as one of the most anticipated thrillers of 2021?
Alex Finlay: I’m working away at the next book, where we’ll see the return of what’s turned out to be an unexpected reader favorite from Every Last Fear, FBI Agent Sarah Keller. Until then, I’m keeping my mask handy, praying for everyone to stay well and for the vaccine to take hold, and hoping the rest of 2021 is boring and uneventful. Thank you, Scott, it’s been an honor.