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[630] Presumed Innocent – Scott Turow

1innocent

Read in Chiangmai, Thailand; reviewed in Pattaya, Thailand

” I do not care much about the way the women gape at me when I walk around in the village center. I do not worry about my reputation, or the fact that for the rest of my life, even if charges are dropped tomorrow, many people will cringe reflexively whenever they hear my name. I do not worry about how hard it will be for me to find work as an attorney if I am acquitted. But the steady emotional erosion, the sleeplessness, the manic anxiety I cannot pretend about or minimize. ” (Ch.25, p.238)

First published in 1987 (don’t know why I have waited so long to read it), Presumed Innocent is an explosive work featuring an investigator-as-suspect plot. After reading many mysteries and crime thrillers, I can say that this book deserves to be read as a seminal work in the history of the melding of literary and genre fiction. Despite a slow beginning, which is a lot of back story involving politics and rivalry, the book only draws reader deeper into the multiple layers of a legal thriller. It takes the standard conceit of a murder mystery (the whodunit) and the central concern of literary fiction (a deep psychological understanding of a central figure’s soul) and wraps them into one propulsive narrative package.

Mr. Della Guardia, you’re tryin to show here that Mr. Sabich hindered the gathering of evidence, as a way to prove guilty knowledge. And the prosecution is entitled to do that, but the defense is entitled to show that the evidence that is being presented was actually gathering through his efforts. (Ch.31, p.325)

Rusty Sabich is an assistant prosecutor who cheated on his wife, and later was charged with the murder of his mistress, Carolyn Polhemus, a lawyer from the prosecuting attorney’s office. Turow unwinds the plot with brilliant cat-and-mouse meanness. Carolyn was found dead in her own home. She was raped, tied up, and bludgeoned. Physical evidence, including a glass with Sabich’s fingerprints and fibers from his home carpet, points to Rusty as the killer. As the courtroom scenes slowly unveil, it’s revealed that the victim herself was no saint. She slept her way to the top and was involved in some dubious undertakings that upon further investigation, would also compromise the jobs of some incumbent officials. The probe of her murder only reveals how political it all is and the undercurrents of venom between lawyers and police and between sectors of the society in which the case takes place.

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 I still I felt for that legend she had made up about herself. (Closing Argument, p.463)

So the book follows the eventual discovery of Rusty Sabich’s affair with Carolyn and his trial for her murder. The twists and turns that the plot makes are familiar, but still unexpected. Turow does a great job of hinting at the final shocker, but until it is laid out, reader doesn’t quite know what is coming. Most provocative is Rusty’s character, full of depth and dimension. Aside from the murder probe, the book turns to Rusty’s first-person testimony that he never gives at his trial. He quietly covers up evidence that points to his guilt, but at the same time pursues the investigation. He is more than the private person he is—he is hiding information that would have acquit him. In a way knowing Rusty Sabich and his struggle is to solve the murder. But he is an unknowable, private man who places everything he loves and values on trial. The book is a thrill ride. It reminds reader that accepting the truth is often the toughest task human beings face. We keep our own counsel so rigorously that we have become, in a way, strangers to ourselves. Read this book for the superb courtroom drama and for the portrayal of a political struggle from within.

463 pp. Grand Central/Hachette. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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2 Responses

  1. I’m almost sure I’ve read this, but good Lord I have such a bad memory, especially of things read before blogging. Classic murder mysteries have always been my thing.

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