American literature is unnaturally thin in courtroom fiction. Aside from James Gould Cozzens’s The Just & the Unjust and Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder, few novels have successfully harnessed the potential of courtroom drama. But Scott Turow’s newly published Presumed Innocent is a book that derives much of its thrilling power and page-turning compulsion from the majesty and quirks of the legal forum, where judge and jury, prosecutor and defence counsel struggle at the most elemental level. It may well be American literature’s finest moment in the courtroom.
Rusty Sabich, a deputy prosecuting attorney in an unnamed midwestern city, is the novel’s narrator and focus. A married man, Sabich has a brief affair with an ambitious woman in the prosecutor’s office who is later murdered in a crime that reeks of rage and sex. Charged with the killing, Sabich is placed on trial by prosecutors he has worked beside—and in front of a judge before whom he has often argued. Although the role-reversal threatens to unhinge him, Sabich somehow takes comfort in the adventure of the trial as it unfolds around him. The competing lawyers gain and lose legal advantage with the speed and ferocity of a high-stakes tennis match, and the story barrels along to a climax that Turow pulls off with aplomb and conviction.
Turow, 38, possesses ideal credentials to write this almost definitive courtroom novel. In 1977 he published One L, a perceptive nonfiction account of his first year at Harvard Law School. With its courtroom scenes of naked authenticity and black humor, Presumed Innocent benefits from a term that Turow served as a Chicago public prosecutor, specializing in white-collar crime. Recently, Warner Books and Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack paid $4 million and $1.3 million respectively for paperback and movie rights. All that remains is to guess which actor will play Sabich on the screen. But one verdict has already been reached: Presumed Innocent is one of the season’s most gripping novels.
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