Reading a literary legal classic: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent

presumed-innocent_lI recently read Presumed Innocent the New York Times best-selling legal thriller written by Chicago lawyer-turned crime novelist Scott Turow.

It was published to both critical and commercial success in 1987 and then, three years later, made into a hugely successful Hollywood movie starring Harrison Ford and directed by Alan J. Pakula, after Sydney Pollack (the film’s producer) bought the movie rights for US$1 million.

Turow, who taught creative writing at Stanford University before obtaining a law degree from Harvard Law School, prosecuted high-profile corruption cases as a Chicago assistant US attorney before penning the tale of Rusty Sabich, a deputy chief prosecutor accused of murdering his co-worker, Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he had a brief, but intense affair.

For some reason I vividly recall watching a CNN profile of Scott Turow after Presumed Innocent became a major Hollywood film, and being fascinated by the fact that he penned most of the book in longhand in a spiral notebook while on the morning train into work.

I also recall seeing the movie at the cinema and enjoying the tale of murder, corruption and court-room battles in what was an above-average thriller elevated by the typically edgy and intense performance of Harrison Ford as the accused Rusty Sabich,  the cool cat-like performance of the late Raul Julia as Sabich’s suave legal defender Sandy Stern and the very spicy sex scenes involving Ford and the utterly gorgeous Greta Sacchi who played the fateful bombshell attorney Carolyn Polhemus.

And so, almost three decades after seeing the movie as a pimply 17- year old, I picked up Scott Turow’s novel on the recommendation of my wife, who had just read and raved about it.

It is a superbly crafted literary novel, certainly heads and shoulders above anything the likes of John Grisham might have penned and has not surprisingly drawn comparisons with the grand masters of crime writing like PD James and Ruth Rendell. In summary: Scott Turow can write!

As the author Anne Rice (Interview with a Vampire) puts it so elegantly in her 1987 review of the book for the New York Times , Turow “transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice”.

She also remarks of his “immense writing talent” and “impressive legal experience”. These are both of in evidence from the very first page when readers are introduced to Rusty Sabich,  the chief deputy prosecuting attorney of fictional Kindle County, who is also – in a stroke of genius by Turow – the narrator of the story.

Opening statement
This how I always start: “I am the prosecutor. I represent the state. I am here to represent to you the evidence of a crime. Together you will weigh this evidence. You will deliberate upon it. You will decide if it proves the defendant’s guilt…”

The novel begins with Sabich brooding over his affair with the beautiful Polhemus, who jilted him just before she was founded raped and murdered in her apartment.

The violent crime is the talk of Kindle County, casting a dark cloud over the re-election campaign of Sabich’s boss, the veteran chief prosecutor Raymond Horgan.

Sabich, who has kept his affair with Polhemus mostly a secret (he has tearfully confessed to his wife Barbara) is then put in charge of leading the investigation into her violent death, a task he attempts to carry out despite the obvious personal conflict.

MSDPRIN EC015

Close encounter: Greta Sacchi as Carolyn Polhemus, Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich

But events take a shocking turn for Sabich (who up until this point has been the reader’s insightful guide into the world of politics, big city crime, police investigations and legal procedure) when he is accused of Polhemus’s murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence and the suspicion of his affair, which gives him a motive.

Sabich hires top defence lawyer Sandy Stern to represent him, while his loyal cop pal, Dan “Lip” Liprazaner helps hunt down information on a secret case file that Polhemus handled and which might explain who killed her and why.

But can we trust Sabich? Yes, he has prosecuted child molesters and violent criminals, but he is also an adulterer and who seems both vulnerable and resentful of women. Did he murder Polhemus in a fit of uncontrollable, jealous rage?

 And then, when I’m by myself, I feel desperate and ashamed. This raging, mad obsession! Where is my world? I am departing. I am gone already.”

This clever plotline – faithfully replicated in the movie – is brought to life on the page by Turow’s carefully delineated characters – from the eloquent and morally ambiguous Sabich to his wounded and bittery resentful wife Barbara to the slippery prosecutor of his case, Nico Della Guardia – and pitch-perfect language to create the sinister undertones at play within the court and district attorney’s offices of Kindle County.

Turow takes his time delving into the biographies of his characters  – Sabich is the son of an unloving and cruel father who escaped the war in Europe – exploring their motivations, so they become living, breathing creations.

At the same time he manages to keep the story and plot moving along so you never feel you’re just turning pages hoping to get to the next important courtroom battle or clue, but immersing yourself in the drama. Everything said and done by Sabich and the cast of lawyers, police officers and members of the court has meaning and relevance to the story.

Turow also makes full-use of his legal experience to create terrifically authentic courtroom exchanges between the defence and prosecuting teams as the scales of justice tip for and against Sabich’s ‘presumed innocence’.

In summary, it’s not hard to understand why Presumed Innocent became a publishing phenomenon in 1987 and why it launched Turow’s writing career (more than 30 million copies of his books have been sold).

time cover turowIn 1990, when the movie of Presumed Innocent came out Time magazine featured Scott Turow on its June 11 cover calling him  ‘the bard of the litigious age’. (It’s also become a popular crossword clue!)

He was then the 92nd writer to make it onto the cover,  joined the ranks of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger and Alex Haley.

The great thing about Presumed Innocent is that it never descends to the status of an “airport paperback thriller.

While its undoubtedly a page-turner, it is squarely a work of literary fiction, spiced up with a film-noir plot, a femme fatale straight out of a 1930s Raymond Chandler crime novel and writing that some have called “Dickensian”

Even if you have seen the movie (or remember the controversial twist at the end), I highly recommend reading the book, which has rightly retained its much-revered status in the crime fiction genre.

Interviewed by CBS News in 2010 after publishing a sequel called Innocence, Turow said:

“‘Presumed Innocent’ changed my life and I went from being a guy writing on the morning commuter train – and I finished the book in an unfinished basement in my house in Wilmette – I went from that to somebody who was a best-selling author around the world.”

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