By Scott Turow
Book 1987 Movie 1990
Classic book, Presumed Innocent is worth a read or a reread.
Why do you read? Pure pleasure? Are you writing a book? Writing book reviews? Other?
Those are my three top reasons for reading Presumed Innocent, a classic murder mystery about a Deputy Prosecution Attorney who has a short lusty relationship with another attorney who is later found brutally murdered. I raced through 486 pages to see if my conjectures were correct, and they were, though I didn’t know that until nearly the last page.
The reason I chose this book out of the thousands of books to read is that it was on the list of top books read by attorneys. One of the characters in the book I’m writing, Girls on Fire, is an attorney, and as I develop her character more thoroughly in my third revision, I wanted to read a few of the books other attorneys say that they read. These two sites were helpful for me to compile a list of books that my character might like. https://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/05/50-best-legal-novels-for-both-lawyers-and-laymenhttp://www.abajournal.com/gallery/10_law_novels/1344
That being said, Presumed Innocent written in 1987 was listed as #12. I chose it for another reason. I figured it would be a book that my character would have read when she was a new attorney.
It fascinated me how Turow set up his clues starting on the second page of the book.
“No one broke in.”
“No broken windows,” I say, “No forced doors.”
“I think somebody was being clever,” I tell them both. “I think that’s misdirection.”
The deputy prosecuting attorney makes those statements before the tables turned and he found himself on the hook for the murder.
Writing coaches often tell you to lie in your book. Your reader should guess the truth because they have an inside view of what the protagonist thinks, but other characters in the book might or might not recognize a lie. The first lie I found was on page 13.
“Hey listen, my friend,” he says, “I am one of your true admirers. I mean that. There are no hard feelings here.” He touches his shirt above the vest. “That is one of the few things that’s going to stay the same when I get there. You’ll still be in the chief deputy’s office.”
The protagonist, Rusty Sabich doesn’t believe him. He knows the speaker’s best friend will replace him.
Descriptions require a lot of hard work to polish them and make them shine. Sometimes I sit for several minutes trying to feel what is happening in my story. I might have written, “I mourned her loss,” which is one step above a first grader writing, “I was sad.” My heart is crying, but no beautiful words pop out of that crushing sorrow to describe it.
Maybe Turow mastered descriptions. This is how he described his sorrow for the woman whose murder he investigated. I felt every word like a blow to my own emotional spirit.
“ I was still in deep disorder, so ravaged, beaten, that my skin seemed the only thing holding me together, a tender husk.”
A question I ask myself is how excellent authors find the words to describe the indescribable. Turow used about seven hundred words each to describe important people or events starting in the second chapter. He used more like one hundred sixty words to describe the place he works.
“The county building where he works is solid red brick dressed up with a few Doric columns to let everybody know it’s a public place.” …In the summer we labor in jungle humidity.”
Reusing the Description
This description, by the way, gives the defense attorney an excuse for his client’s actions during the trial. A similar description to the building is pried out of a secretary testifying against the defendant on page 274.
“Ms. Martinez, do you remember how warm it was in Kindle County last year around Labor Day?”
…”Past 100 two days.”
“Correct,” Stern says, improperly. “Is the P.A.’s office air-conditioned?”
Eugenia snorts. “Only if you believe what they say.”
… “I take it you try to leave as soon as the day ends when the heat is like that?”
“You got that right.”
“But the prosecutors, when they are in the midst of a trial, do not leave at the end of the day, do they?”
… “Now madam, would you not prefer to work in air conditioning rather than the P.A.’s office on a very warm day?”
… “Sure would.”
And the defense attorney builds a reason for his defendant to work in the home of the murdered woman with whom the prosecution tried to project as him having an affair with her. The way he picked up on that one tiny detail on page nineteen and turned it into an entire cross-examination that practically acquitted the defendant awed me as a writer.
Three Years Later
No wonder they made a movie out of it. Even if you didn’t read the book, you probably saw the movie. What is your opinion?
About the Author
“Scott Turow was born in Chicago in 1949. He graduated with high honors from Amherst College in 1970, receiving a fellowship to Stanford University Creative Writing Center which he attended from 1970 to 1972. From 1972 to 1975 Turow taught creative writing at Stanford. In 1975, he entered Harvard Law School, graduating with honors in 1978. From 1978 to 1986, he was an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago, serving as lead prosecutor in several high-visibility federal trials investigating corruption in the Illinois judiciary. In 1995, in a major pro bono legal effort he won a reversal in the murder conviction of a man who had spent 11 years in prison, many of them on death row, for a crime another man confessed to.” Amazon.com
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