Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent

The Time cover story on Scott Turow begins with courtroom instructions: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You have heard the charges against my client. The prosecution argues that with malice aforethought he wrote a novel, Presumed Innocent, with the intent of willfully endangering the sleep habits and on-the-job efficiency of millions of innocent readers. Furthermore, it has been claimed that my client is remorseless.”

Mystery writers have rarely been chosen for the cover of Time. But given the fact that Turow burst upon the literary scene with Presumed Innocent, a legal mystery which won the prestigious Silver Dagger award, remained on the New York Times’s bestseller for 43 weeks, went through 16 hardcover printings, sold 4 million paperback copies, was translated into 18 languages, and was awarded the biggest advance ever for a first-time writer from publishers Farr, Straus & Giroux, it is not surprising that Turow was chosen.

In Presumed Innocent, we first meet Chief Deputy Prosecutor Rusty Sabich at the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus, a colleague and former lover who was raped and brutally murdered. Rusty must investigate the case while also coming to terms with his adultery with Carolyn and her final rejection of him. The situation is further complicated by political circumstances – the Chief Prosecuting Attorney is running for re-election and does not want the publicity surrounding the case to jeopardize his prospects. The case takes a bizarre turn when Rusty is identified as the prime suspect in the case. The story is riveting and the ending will make you want to reread the book.

Turow wrote the novel while working as an assistant U.S. district attorney, a truly remarkable feat. This Harvard graduate, accomplished author, and former Stanford University creative writing instructor still practices law. According to his online biography, Turow focuses on white collar criminal defense cases and devotes time to pro bono matters. He has written a number of books, including 2 nonfiction works; these books have sold more than 25 million copies. In 2010 he wrote, Innocent, a sequel to Presumed Innocent.

CNN identifies Turow as “the father of the legal thriller.” His expertise on legal matters provides him with the inside knowledge that makes Presumed Innocent a convincing and realistic courtroom drama. But Turow is more than a legal expert. He is a skilled storyteller, an insightful observer of society, and an accomplished stylist. In Presumed Innocent, he “combines immense writing talent and considerable legal experience to create an impressive and unusual fiction debut. From page 1, the book consciously transcends the murder-mystery genre, combining whodunit suspense with an elegant style and philosophical voice,” observes Anne Rice in her New York Times review of the novel.

This legal mystery has affinities with the classic British detective novel. Rice points out that
as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that almost everybody in the novel knew Carolyn. Almost everybody knows everybody else. . . . In sum, this sordid, big-city murder story has the delicious closed quality of the classic country-house mystery, in which anybody from the butler to the visiting Russian cousin might have committed the crime.
Corruption both within and without the legal system is depicted in the novel. Time observes that Turow has made his mark as an author by dramatizing the limits of legalisms: “Both Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof weave and coil intricately around the same point: without the law, civilized life is impossible; with the law, civilized life is only nearly impossible.”

Although Turow’s legal background gives him a decided edge on other writers of legal mysteries, it has also proved to be a drawback. Legal details tend to overwhelm Presumed Innocent. As Symons observes, “the relentless mass of detail about court procedure ends by dulling appreciation of Turow’s expertise” (1992, 312).

But most readers will agree with Rice’s assessment that “Presumed Innocent is without doubt an ambitious and absorbing novel, the work of a profoundly gifted writer with a fine, distinctive voice.”

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.

Turow, Scott. Presumed Innocent. New York: Grand Central, 1987.