I’ve decided on a New Year’s Resolution: I am going to try to answer this question about every book I review on Past Offences:
Why should a reader pick up this old book, even seek it out, when they could be reading a more recent one?
This is because I am mainly reading crime novels which have, for whatever reason, stood the test of time. They’re mainly good – but are they better than contemporary books? You deserve to be reading better books, don’t you? Well, I’m trying to help.
So, onto Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow’s first novel and a ‘NINE-MILLION-COPY BESTSELLER’.
It is the story of Rusty Sabich, a Prosecuting Attorney in Kindle County, USA. As the back cover tells us, ‘he enters a nightmare world when Carolyn, a beautiful attorney with whom he has been having an affair, is found raped and strangled. He stands accused.’
The book opens with the initial stages of Rusty’s investigation into the murder of his colleague Carolyn Polhemus. As Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (PA), Rusty is expected to handle all of the difficult or high-profile cases that come into his department – a murder of a colleague definitely qualifies, especially at a very sensitive time. This is an election year.
Rusty works closely with the police, notably his best friend Lipranzer (‘a duckass hairdo and that look of lurking small-time viciousness that you’ve seen on every no-account kid hanging on a street corner’), and we follow his progress closely as he negotiates the bureaucracy and half-truths surrounding the case. Things progress slowly, and Rusty soon suspects that the investigation is being obstructed by Tommy Molto, another attorney.
In alternate chapters, the book flashes back to Rusty’s recent affair with Carolyn. This is as vertiginous a fall into infidelity as I’ve ever read. The two come together whilst prosecuting an important case and:
‘It’s going to be so good,’ she says, and then her eyes, which are quite green, stay on me a little longer, just enough so that I know we’ve suddenly left the trial…
Their affair makes for heady reading, but more importantly leads Rusty to do a little obfuscation on his own account – actions which come back to haunt him. The affair also haunts his marriage to the slightly oddball career mathematician Barbara.
Political struggle – this is an election year – forms a backdrop to the enquiry. Raymond Horgan is the PA of Kindle County. Rusty, as Chief Deputy, is theoretically Horgan’s right-hand man. Unfortunately, it looks like Horgan is on his way out and his entire team faces unemployment. Rusty is regretting his loyalty, especially as he believes that he could have won in his boss’s place. Looking up at a campaign poster:
I cannot help myself. Raymond Horgan is my future and my past. I have been a dozen years with him, years full of authentic loyalty and admiration. I am his second-in-command, and his fall would be my own. But there is no silencing the voice of discontent; it has its own imperatives. And it speaks now to the image overhead in a sudden forthright way. You sap, it says. You are, it says, a sap.
Raymond’s opponent is Nico Della Guardia, an old office-mate and rival of Rusty’s. Presumed Innocent provides an intriguing insight into the mechanics of American government (I’m in the UK, and have only a vague idea of how US systems work. I had no idea that the whole legal infrastructure of the state – including judges and prosecutors – depended on a public vote to gain and retain office).
It is Della Guardia and his crony Tommy Molto who reveal the charge against Rusty – I’m not giving away any more than the book’s cover to reveal that he winds up on trial for the murder of Carolyn.
The second part of the book is an incredibly detailed and presumably accurate depiction of a murder trial. We’re taken play-by-play through the prosecution and defense, pre-trial negotiations, jury selection, courtroom spats, objections sustained and over-ruled, evidence and argument.
Here’s the thing: Rusty’s a professional lawyer amongst professional lawyers, and once they’re in the courtroom it’s all about winning. The defense, led by the formidable Sandy Stern, is looking for tactical advantage, not the truth. There may have been a conspiracy, but as far as Sandy is concerned, legal tactics win trials. Accusations of conspiracy do not win trials. Innocence does not win trials.
I finally bring myself to say what vestigial pride has so long prevented: ‘Sandy, I’m innocent.’
Stern reaches over and, as only he could do, pats me on the hand. He has a look of deep, if practiced, sadness. And as I meet this brown-eyed spaniel expression I realize that Alejandro Stern, one of this town’s finest defense lawyers, has heard these ardent proclamations of innocence too many times before
By the way, we’re not entirely sure that Rusty is innocent.
It’s not all about the trial, there’s a lot of introspection too. I’m not a big fan of the old thinking aloud in books, but there is some fine writing here as Rusty confronts the case and its consequences: fear, thoughts of escape, regrets, concerns about losing his son, his wife, his career, memories of his father and mother. Standing trial is a terrifying and life-changing experience, and we are not spared that.
If the book has a fault, it is the skewed approach to the victim. I get that cops and associated professionals might develop a protective cynicism towards the dead, but for God’s sake, Carolyn Polhemus was a close colleague. Yet barely a regret is expressed in private (public display is a different matter), and they are all pretty cold about her. Here’s Raymond Horgan:
A smart, sexy gal. A helluva lawyer… And that’s how she ends up, that’s her au revoir? With some demented slug cracking her skull and giving her a jump.
And Rusty – unbelievably heartlessly – has this to say:
Carolyn’s caseload was made up primarily of sexual assaults… Like many others, I suspected Carolyn of more than a passing fascination with this aspect of her work, as well, and I examine the case files with the hope that there will be a pattern I can seize on – we will be able to charge that it was actually some cultish ceremony that was duplicated six days ago in Carolyn’s loft apartment, or a brutal mimicry of an offense in which Carolyn somehow displayed too obvious a voyeuristic interest.
So why should you read Presumed Innocent?
For the courtroom drama, definitely. For the portrayal of a political struggle from the inside. And for the rich inner life of Rusty Sabich – frustrated career lawyer, reckless lover, family man, and – maybe – killer. I rest my case.
Final destination: Back to the library
By the way, if you have suitable plug-ins (which apparently I don’t, although I definitely do) you can listen to Scott Turow discussing Presumed Innocent on the BBC World Service.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.