Scott Turow’s first novel has been first on the best-seller list of The New York Times for many weeks. It has been widely and, for the most part, favorably reviewed, and one must assume that its readers include a considerable number with literary tastes who do not automatically buy every popular novel that becomes a big best seller. Yet Presumed Innocent does not easily fit any preconceived notion of the suspense novel, literary or not. It begins slowly and evokes little sense of danger; though some of its details are shocking or revolting, it is not the sort of book to make the flesh crawl or the pulse rate quicken. Nor is it nearly as arresting in its characterization or as memorable for its stylistic atmospheric effects as the early spy novels of Le Carré or the detective fiction of Chandler and Hammett; in fact, Presumed Innocent near its conclusion commits an act of literary bad faith that any serious writer of such fiction would scorn. For an explanation of the novel’s undoubted appeal, we must turn, I think, to two contemporary phenomena: the legalistic preoccupations of our litigious age and the assumption, held most often by people who do not live in big cities, of not only limitless criminal depravity among the “ethnic” denizens there but also nearly universal corruption among urban politicians and enforcers of law and order.
The scene of the action in Presumed Innocent is Kindle (read Cook) County, which incorporates a somewhat scaleddown and slightly disguised version of Chicago. The leading character is Rusty (Rozat) Sabich, the brooding son of a half-mad Serbian immigrant and his part-Irish, part-Jewish wife. Rusty has risen, not unscarred, to the position of chief deputy prosecutor of Kindle County, and nothing ugly in the life of his city can surprise him. Something very ugly has indeed just happened. the rape and murder of another deputy prosecutor, Carolyn Polhemus, a tough, swinging blond lawyer with whom—only eight months before—Rusty has had a brief, tumultuous affair. Ignorant of this relationship, the county’s prosecuting attorney, Raymond Horgan, hands over the investigation of the Polhemus case to Rusty while he wages an all-out (and losing) battle for reelection against another (former) deputy prosecutor, Nico Della (“Delay”) Guardia. At home, Rusty must contend with his neurotically difficult and melancholy wife, Barbara (née Bernstein), who has been further embittered by Rusty’s confession of the affair with Carolyn.
Turlow lays out this situation and introduces his large cast with commendable efficiency, but there is a great deal for the reader to absorb and the action lags until, after more than a hundred pages, events take a startling turn: Rusty himself is accused of the murder by Nico Della Guardia, who has just defeated Horgan in the primary. The physical evidence is circumstantial but serious. It includes a semen specimen taken from Carolyn’s vagina that matches Rusty’s blood type; two of his fingerprints found on a drinking glass on the …