Inconclusive Evidence

The Burden of Proof

by Scott Turow
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 515 pp., $22.95

The Music Room

by Dennis McFarland
Houghton Mifflin, 275 pp., $19.95

In a Father’s Place

by Christopher Tilghman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 214 pp., $18.95

Scott Turow’s first novel, Presumed Innocent, appeared three years ago, remained on the Times best-seller list for fifty-four weeks, and has just been made into a movie. For much of its length it is an interesting, competently written work of detective and courtroom fiction, with a wider social range than is usual, providing entertaining observations on arcane legal matters that Turow, himself a practicing lawyer, presents with commendable clarity. The novel’s climax is a suspenseful trial scene in which the defense is brilliantly conducted by an Argentinian-Jewish lawyer named Alejandro Stern. Unfortunately, Turow seriously undermined whatever literary claims his book might have had by what I consider an act of novelistic bad faith: the revelation near the novel’s end of crucial information that the first-person narrator has until then concealed from the reader. This trick makes psychological nonsense of the narrator’s carefully rendered thoughts and intimate feelings, which have been laid out from the start.

In his new novel, The Burden of Proof, “Sandy” Stern is the leading character. As the book opens, Stern returns home from a business trip and discovers that Clara, his wife for thirty-one years, has committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Her body has been “cooked” by the heat generated by the car’s long-running motor in the closed garage, which now reeks of putrefaction. Clara’s note, left in the bedroom, says only, “Can you forgive me?”

Why has an apparently admirable, dignified, self-controlled woman done such a thing? This is a question that is pursued for the next five hundred pages, but it is far from the only question. Even before Clara’s body has had time to reach room temperature, we are involved in the question of why the United States attorney’s office is issuing subpoenas to the clients of Stern’s brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell, the piratical head of a huge commodity-futures trading empire. What has Dixon, Stern’s most difficult client (“callous, self-centered”), been up to? Evidently something so serious that two FBI agents try to serve him with a subpoena just as the family is leaving for Clara’s funeral. What of a laboratory bill showing that Clara had recently undergone medical tests? Did she have cancer? Why did the independently rich Clara draw a certified check for $850,000 from her account a few days before her suicide? To whom was the check made out? Why has it never cleared?

Turow thickens the plot so rapidly that by the end of the first half of the novel the reader is staggering under the burden less of proof than of the accumulation of questions that need to be resolved. How on earth could the admirable Clara have contracted genital herpes? Is Stern’s doctor-son, Peter, homosexual? Will Stern now marry his kindly, middle-aged neighbor Helen or the young, pregnant assistant US attorney, Sonia Klonsky? Each question breeds a little flock of unsatisfactory answers that pose further questions, even though a number lead nowhere. Yet Turow …

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