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)