Sunday Salon – Review of “Presumed Innocent” and “Innocent” by Scott Turow

The Sunday

Back when I used to do research in a defense law firm, we would have periodic case status meetings. They would always begin the same way: the senior partner would read a chapter out of one of Scott Turow’s early books demonstrating a character’s masterful command of courtroom technique. You see more examples of this dazzling prowess in Presumed Innocent than in the sequel, but they will both teach you a lot about the litigation process, while providing enough puzzles and twists to keep the suspense level high as well.

In this latest book, the focus is on the characters more than on legal procedure, and I didn’t find it quite as masterful as the first book. But it did have at least one feature that filled me with endless admiration: Turow managed to bring the readers up to date in Innocent without including a single spoiler for the earlier book.

Let me tell you about each of the books.

Presumed Innocent, written twenty-three years ago, begins with the death of Carolyn Polhemus, a deputy Prosecuting Attorney (P.A.) who worked in the office of Raymond Horgan (Chief P.A.) and Rusty Sabich (Chief Deputy P.A.). Sabich, age 39, had been having an affair with Carolyn, but it had ended six months earlier. Rusty had worked on a case with Carolyn, who was blonde, built, bold, and sexy, and he fell hard for her. With her dynamism and aggressive personality, she was the opposite of Rusty’s moody, taciturn wife Barbara, his main tie to whom was their 8-year-old son Nat. But the real reason he succumbed to Carolyn was more complex:

“I reached for Carolyn. In a part of me, I knew my gesture was ill-fated. I must have recognized her troubled vanity, the poverty of feeling that reduced her soul. I must have known that what she offered was only the grandest of illusions. But still I fell for that legend she had made up about herself. The glory. The glamour. The courage. All her determined grace. To fly above this obscure world of anguish, this black universe of pain! For me there will always be that struggle to escape the darkness. I reached for Carolyn. I adored her, as the faith healer is adored by the halt and lame. But I wanted with wild, wild abandon, with a surging, defiant, emboldened desire, I wanted the extreme – the exultation, the passion and the moment, the fire, the light. I reached for Carolyn. In hope. Hope. Everlasting hope.”

To everyone’s surprise, Rusty is accused of the murder. He is prosecuted by two colleagues, Nico Della Guardia and Tommy Molto. The judge, Larren Lyttle, is an old colleague of Rusty’s boss. When the jury is called, Judge Lyttle, who has always favored the defense, explains to them:

“Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you again what you are to presume. Mr. Sabich is innocent. I am the judge. I am tellin’ you that. Presume he is innocent. When you sit there, I want you to look over and say to yourself, There sits an innocent man.”

Rusty’s lawyer, Sandy Stern, conducts a brilliant defense, and the trial is dismissed. But by now you know the verdict has nothing to do with guilt or innocence, which is yet to be determined.

Innocent takes place twenty years after the events of Presumed Innocent. Rusty Sabich has just turned sixty, and now serves as Chief Judge of the State Court of Appeals. He is a candidate for the State Supreme Court. His son Nat is now 28 and in law school, and his wife of 36 years, Barbara, has just died.

Tommy Molto, now Acting P.A., is egged on to investigate the death by his brash, hot-headed Chief Deputy, Jim Brand. Brand has discovered that Rusty is having an affair [again!] and thinks that provides a motive for killing his wife.

The young woman Rusty is seeing is his senior law clerk. Anna Vostic, only 34, is blonde, smart, and sexy (hmmm, sound familiar?) and Rusty’s life has been in a holding pattern for twenty years now. He doesn’t feel like he has been “living.”

In spite of his professional success, he is without “the unnameable piece of happiness that has eluded [him] for sixty years” that I think readers can take to mean a fulfilling personal relationship. His wife was bipolar and on a plethora of antidepressants and sleeping pills. They had little interaction, except with respect to Nat.

In spite of the pleasure Anna provides, Rusty feels like an idiot for having an affair with her, and decides to end it:

“‘I know at all moments that what I am doing is in every colloquial sense insane,’ Rusty says. ‘Powerful middle-aged man, beautiful younger woman. The plot scores zero for originality and is deservedly the object of universal scorn, including my own. . . . I don’t need someone else’s advice to know this is simply crazy, hedonistic, nihilistic, and that most important ‘istic’ — unreal. It must end.'”

But Molto and Brand know only that Rusty waited 24 hours after his wife died before calling the police, and that Barbara had an overdose of antidepressants in her body. The only fingerprints on the pill bottle are Rusty’s. And so they go to trial. Once again, Rusty calls on Attorney Sandy Stern to help exonerate him. But he can’t get lucky twice, can he? Besides, isn’t “innocence” relative? As Turow himself said in an interview:

“There isn’t a separate moral plane in the courtroom. Scumbags go free and basically good guys get convicted, but those facts are without much consequence in the law.”


I loved Presumed Innocence for the superb courtroom exchanges and the onion-like unfolding of revelations, with the reader never knowing where the truth lay until the end.

Innocent is still good but on the whole I think less so than its predecessor. It felt as if there were a little less testosterone running through not only the characters but the narration. These weren’t energetic velociraptors at the top of their game. The perspective of a judge is perforce calmer and more judicious, if you will, than that of hotshot prosecutors, and there was less palpable excitement in the second book. Nevertheless, Innocent provides skillful crime writing that simultaneously elucidates legal procedures and norms, and that appeals to me much more than just a lurid romp from body to body.

Both of these books both have a very masculine feel to them. They aren’t mysteries in the sense of “thrillers” but you couldn’t call them “cozy” either. And in fact, no one has tea and biscuits, not once. This is Chicago, after all (thinly disguised as “Kindle”); meatball sandwiches are more the norm.

Evaluation: Ultimately, Innocent was sad for me. The characters who were in the prime of their lives in Presumed Innocent are now on the back stretches. Their stories are pretty much over. They spend their time looking back on missed chances, old hurts, former pleasures, and even new sources of happiness, but these are the comparatively less passionate joys of older age. Contentment is what they seek; not an adrenalin rush.

Yet Turow’s skills as a suspense writer have not suffered any diminution. He keeps you guessing until the end, and his smooth writing style and intelligent plot developments are more than satisfactory.


Presumed Innocent: 4.5/5 (Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986)

Innocent: 4/5 (Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2010)

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14 Responses to Sunday Salon – Review of “Presumed Innocent” and “Innocent” by Scott Turow

  1. I definitely need to check these books out. I’m listening to The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest right now. It’s more procedural than the first two in Stieg Larsson’s series and I’m loving it. I’m figuring out that I enjoy procedurals in my reading as much as I do in my TV.

    Thanks for the great reviews! I love how you combined your reviews, too!

  2. bookingmama says:

    Fantastic reviews of both books. I remember loving Presumed Innocent and wasn’t sure if I wanted to revisit the characters this long after I read the original book. But I have to say that you review convinced me to read it!

  3. Barbara says:

    I had been hesitating to read Innocent too, but now I think it’ll be a good summer read.

  4. Margot says:

    I’m one of those who loved Presumed Innocent too. Even after all this time I still have a good, strong feeling for it. I am definitely going to read Innocent but, based on your review, I will read it with different expectations. Your review has cushioned me against expecting too much “testosterone running through” it. As always, an excellent evaluation.

  5. bermudaonion says:

    I loved Presumed Innocent when I read it years ago – at the time it felt so new – so I’ve really been looking forward to Innocent. It sounds like it’s good, even if it’s not as good as Presumed Innocent.

  6. Michele says:

    It’s been years since I read Presumed Innocent, but I loved it so much. So when Innocent was being released, I decided to download the unabridged audio of Presumed Innocent for a refresher and then I downloaded Innocent to round it out. Of course, at the rate I go through an audio book, it might be next year before I finish them both, LOL.

  7. Kay says:

    You did a really good job of sharing the gist of both of these novels. A really good job. I think it worked well to have both of them in the same post. I came to the same conclusions that you did regarding each of them. I loved PRESUMED INNOCENT and didn’t love INNOCENT quite as much, although there were definitely good things about it. I was amazed as well that Scott Turow managed to not spoil anything about PRESUMED INNOCENT in the second book. That was quite a feat! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Nymeth says:

    No tea or biscuits?! Pff, not interested then 😉

    Seriously now, I’m in awe of any author who manages to make the second book in a series make sense without spoiling the first!

  9. Jenners says:

    So interesting that a law firm used the Turow book to read from at meetings! Love that little factoid.

    I loved “Presumed Innocent” but it has been years … I didn’t quite realize this new one revisited the same characters. Interesting choice for Turow to make. It would make for a good back to back read.

  10. Julie says:

    I read Presumed Innocent last year and am looking forward to reading Innocent. I also read Turow’s “Limitations” where some of the same characters, including Sabich, made an appearance. I’m looking forward to Innocent, but will have different expectations of it after your review. I love reading anything about the law and that involves trials so I’m sure I will enjoy it! Thanks for the review!

  11. stacybuckeye says:

    I remember loving the movie Presumed Innocent and always intended to read the book. One of these days…
    I think it’s interesting that your law firm meetings included readings from popular fiction 🙂

  12. mercymercyme says:

    I stayed up until 5:30 a.m. today to finish Innocent. It was that good.

    Your twin spin on Turow’s books was informative and spot on, especially the point you made that Innocent is not a spoiler for those who have not yet read Presumed Innocent. I was wondering how Turow was going to navigate those tricky waters, and he acquitted himself in a masterful way.

    I was 39 years old when I read Presumed Innocent the year it was published. Perhaps because the sequel is twenty-years after the fact, and I am more or less the same age as the character Rusty Sabich, what resonated with me most was the skill in which Turow depicts the aging process and how much — or how little — it adds to the emotional maturation of the main characters.

    The alternating points-of-view that toggle back and forth over the period of two years is a terrific plot device that helps the reader keep track of the characters, their motivation and actions, not to mention the byzantine (to a civilian) courtroom scenes.

    I can hardly wait to re-read Presumed Innocent.

  13. Lisa says:

    I haven’t read any Turow in years–perhaps since Presumed Innocent. I loved the ending of it so I’m not sure why I didn’t keep reading his books.

  14. Jane Boyd says:

    In the beginning of Innocent, Molto is recalling Polhemus’ murder and indicates she was strangled. Maybe I am misremembering Presumed Innocent, but wasn’t she hit over the head with a tool of some type–or did she die by strangling from the ropes with which she was tied?? Guess I need to reread Presumed Innocent.

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