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 bar in her apartment; a telephone call from Rusty’s house to Carolyn on the night of her murder that has been recorded; and certain fibers found in her apartment that match the carpeting in Rusty’s house. While the witnesses Della Guardia has lined up seem less threatening, they might well be able to complete the picture of guilt. Rusty is indicted and must stand trial.
At this point the documentary aspect of Presumed Innocent becomes absorbingly interesting to anyone concerned with the intricacies of criminal law. Turow, who himself served as an assistant United States attorney in Chicago and whose previous book, One L, deals graphically with his experiences as a first year law student at Harvard, is thoroughly at home with all the advanced techniques of criminal investigation and the uses to which lawyers can put them. The reader learns that a fingerprint can sometimes last three and a half years, and that the doctor-patient relationship is privileged as evidence only with regard to conversation, not acts.
A hero of sorts—the only one in the novel—is now introduced in the person of Rusty’s defense lawyer, a suave Argentinean Jew named Alejandro Stern. Both the courtroom scenes and the conferences between lawyer and client are dominated by Stern, who is masterly in his conduct of the cross-examinations and subtle in his psychological appraisal of the judge, the prosecutors, the witnesses, and his client. To the very end, Rusty is not sure that Stern believes him to be innocent. To me it seemed clear all along that the defense would triumph; what held me, therefore, was not suspense about the outcome or the danger to Rusty, but the legal lore—the insider’s view of the craft of law—that Turow provides so skillfully and abundantly. Here, for example, is Stern’s explanation to Rusty of his reasons for not wanting him to testify in his own defense:
“Rusty, I prefer to see the defendant take the stand. No matter how often and how insistently jurors are told that they must not hold a defendant’s silence against him, it is an impossible instruction to follow. A jury wants to hear a denial, particularly when the defendant is a person accustomed to presenting himself in public. But in this case I am against it. We both know this, Rusty: Two groups of persons make good witnesses. Those who are essentially truthful. And skilled liars. You are an essentially truthful person…. I have no doubt that if you were to testify to everything you knew you would do so convincingly and that you would be acquitted. Deservingly, I might add.”
He looks at me briefly, a quick but penetrating expression….
“However,” he says, “I am convinced after observing you for several months now that you will not testify to everything you know. [Rusty’s affair with Carolyn has not been introduced as a matter of record in the trial; there is also, it later turns out, something else on Rusty’s mind of which the reader has not yet been apprised.] Some matters remain your secret. Certainly at this juncture I do not wish to pry…. In a few cases, it is best to leave things undisturbed…. I am confident that the choice you have made is a deliberate one, and well considered. But be that as it may, when one comes to the witness stand determined to tell less than the truth, he is like a three-legged animal in the wild. You are not a skillful liar. And if Nico [the prosecutor] blunders into this area of sensitivity, whatever it is, things will go very badly for you.”
Stern is always technically interesting to watch in action, whether he is cross-examining a hostile witness, raising objections to a prosecutor’s question, or addressing the judge. The most satisfying of the courtroom scenes is the one in which Stern demolishes the testimony of the incompetent and obnoxious pathologist, “Painless” Kumagai, by showing that in preparing his report on the presence of spermicidal jelly in the semen specimen he had completely overlooked his earlier autopsy finding, that Carolyn’s tubes had been tied and that she presumably had no need of contraceptives of any sort.
Away from the courtroom, Turow provides for his readers an expertly guided tour through the most sordid aspects of big-city criminality. We learn of a child-abuse case in which a mother fractures her little boy’s skull in a vise. We visit the notorious Grace Street Projects, a development that has nearly been destroyed by its “underclass” black inhabitants and that serves as headquarters for a depraved gang called the Night Saints. While there we hear of the atrocious fate of Morgan Hoberly, a gang member who had testified against his brothers. We see a snarling, racist Irish policeman demanding (and getting) in a deserted alley the services of a reluctant black hooker. On a higher level dirty political tricks, perjury, and bribery are the order of the day. Even the handsome and impressive black judge, Larren Lytle, who presides over Rusty’s trial, was once “on the take” in collaboration with Carolyn Polhemus—a fact that Alejandro Stern knows and subtly exploits. Except for the WASPs (who make no appearance in Presumed Innocent) no ethnic or racial group is spared; even the hapless pathologist is Japanese.
Who is to say that such a picture is inaccurate? Incidents and characters such as Turow supplies can be encountered in the wards of any big city—whether Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, or New York. Of course such a picture is incomplete, as Turow obviously knows, but it is of a sort to confirm the prejudices of those who live at a comfortable remove from such inner-city phenomena as the Grace Street Projects, and, with its regularly timed descriptions of sex and atrocity, to provide a certain frisson as well.
The prose throughout is serviceable, in the mode of good factual reporting. Once the novel gains momentum, the scenes are admirably constructed, with well-selected and often vivid detail, sharp dialogue, and a nice sense of timing. The descriptive passages briskly assemble the necessary—and frequently horrendous—facts, while leaving little scope for figurative or otherwise memorable language; their impact is derived from the facts presented, not from any atmospheric effects. Similarly, Turow provides a convincing dossier for most of his characters, giving us the salient information about them seasoned with a lawyerlike degree of psychological shrewdness. When he attempts, as in the case of Rusty, more complex self-portrayal, we feel the strain involved—and the results are considerably less convincing. Here, for example, is Rusty’s account of his feelings after he has been indicted:
And how do I feel, so instantly struck low, brought down from my station as model citizen and become a pariah instead? To say that there are no words is inaccurate. There are words, but they would be so many. My spirits keel about wildly. The anxiety is corrosive and I spend much time in a tumult of anger and disbelief.
The present tense obviously contributes to the awkwardness of such introspection, but the novelist implies something about his own limitations.
It is with Rusty’s self-portrayal that Turow commits what I consider a serious blunder, one that wholly undermines Rusty’s credibility as a narrator—and persuades me that the reviewing convention of not giving away the final twist of a novel’s plot need not be observed. Near the end of Presumed Innocent, well after his triumphant acquittal, Rusty suddenly reveals to us that the killer of Carolyn Polhemus is none other than his wife, Barbara. Such a revelation, which the reader may well have suspected anyway, would be plausible in a first-person, present-tense narrative only if it represented a startling discovery on Rusty’s part. But we are also told after his aquittal that Rusty has been convinced of his wife’s guilt since an episode that occurred before his trial even began, when, accompanied by his lawyer, he goes to inspect the evidence in Carolyn’s apartment. A more serious novelist would have wanted to show the impact of such a discovery on Rusty and on subsequent events, but Turow’s narrator has withheld this information for nearly half of the novel, thereby creating false suspense and a false consciousness for Rusty, and subjecting the reader to a cheap trick. In my case at least, this destroyed much of the pleasure that the book had hitherto provided.
November 19, 1987