I don’t read a lot of modern legal thrillers, despite a) being a confirmed mystery addict, b) loving courtroom dramas on film and TV and c) someone who got a law degree at university. Why? Well, despite several notable examples of the genre from the past that I greatly admire – by the likes of Dickens, Forster, Harper Lee and Hugo – I do not enjoy the genre as it has developed today through the efforts of the likes of John Grisham or Steve Martini, often finding them either too dry to engage with or too overblown to convince. But Scott Turow is usually a cut above …
I submit this revised review for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom.
Innocent opens with a haunting image – a man is sitting on the corner of his bed, and in it is the dead body of a woman. Instead of that standby mystery cliché of the hero waking up next to the corpse of an unknown blonde and wondering what happened, we know that the woman is the man’s wife and that the man is Rusty Sabich, the protagonists of Turow’s Presumed Innocent from a quarter of a century ago. The image deliberately evokes the Edward Hopper painting ‘Excursion into Philosophy’ (as Turow tells us in the introduction) and appropriately enough this is a mysterious and contemplative work, as much a whodunit and a story of existential malaise that can fairly be compared with Philip Roth’s recent investigations into the aging American male and his psyche. Rusty is now sixty, a senior appellate court judge and suddenly a widower. He will spend almost the next 24 hours sitting by his late wife on the bed they shared before calling their son Nat about her death. By that time making a determination as to cause of death will be that much harder. Rusty probably knows how she died, but if his past is anything to go by, then he probably won’t be telling – at least, not anytime soon. As with its predecessor, it is the relationship between Rusty and his wife Barbara that is at the is core of the novel, but with Nat providing a crucial new dimension to the dynamic.
After this prologue the story then jumps backward and forward in time over an 18 month period, the shifts helpfully signposted by a small diagram of the timeline at the top of each chapter to tell us where we are (this would be even more helpful for us Europeans if the dates hadn’t been left in the US style month-day-year format) as we shift from one character’s viewpoint to another. During the first half of the book we slowly learn what has happened to Rusty after the events in Presumed Innocent, during which he was put on trial for the murder of his colleague Carolyn, who at one-time had also been his mistress. In terms of narrative we are told all we need to know about the character’s history and it is not necessary to have actually read the preceding novel. However, by the time the book ends, not having access to this information will put some readers at a certain disadvantage, even if they do not realise it, in terms of truly appreciating the several ironies of the story. While the earlier novel was also seen from Rusty’s point of view, here Turow employs multiple narrators with great skill to take the reader into the mind of the other main characters. These include: prosecutor Tommy Molto, an ex-colleague who prosecuted Rusty at his trial, and who here is greatly humanised as we see him find a new lease on life following a late but successful marriage and the birth of his child; and Anna, an intern in her 30s who after several romantic disasters develops a huge crush on Rusty.
After a freighted second, I will tell my father, She didn’t kill herself.
No, he will agree at once.
She wasn’t in that kind of mood.
In flashback we discover that Rusty is now running for election to the Supreme Court, to the increasing distress of Barbara. She has belatedly been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which along with a number of congenital ailments combine to make her feel that her life is being ever more exposed as Rusty pulls further away from her. The scenes in which we see her descend into a black and violent rage are particularly effective, as are those in which Rusty, feeling increasingly distanced from his wife, begins an affair with Anna. All of which will come to haunt him when Tommy decides to prosecute Rusty for the murder of his wife in what appears to be an act driven by spite and bitter rivalry since there seems to be little evidence that Barbara died anything other than a natural death. Most readers are bound to roll their eyes as Rusty seemingly falls into the same traps he did decades earlier, but this time the love affair is much more genuine and is well and truly over before Barbara’s death. What it does though is provide much more insight into the mind of a man now late in middle age who has come to realise that he made a mistake by renouncing on the possibility of a happier domestic life for the sake of giving his son a more stable environment. This part of the story is handled in a sensitive and heartfelt manner and one can only guess at how much of this was inspired from the real-life separation that Turow and his now ex-wife were going through at the time the book was being prepared.
“You are still not satisfied. You’re not satisfied with your nutjob wife!”
The second part of the novel deals almost exclusively with the trial and is paced quite differently, with suspense paradoxically increased by bringing the tempo almost to a complete stop – having covered some 18 months in the previous half of the book, the next 100 or so pages deal exclusively with just one day in court – the contrast is truly galvanizing and expertly handled by Turow. In addition he brings back wily defence lawyer Sandy Stern, who also defended Rusty the first time round but who now also has his own battle with cancer to contend with. The courtroom pyrotechnics are handled with great finesse as a mountain of minute circumstantial detail is accumulated against Rusty, while his private life is thrown into even further chaos when his ex-mistress Anna falls in love with Nat. If this sounds a little soap operatic, to a certain extent it is, and it’s not my favourite part of the book by any stretch. However, the high level of attention paid to the detailed characterisation easily matches that given over to legal maneuverings so doesn’t deter much from what is a very compelling read.
In 2011 the novel was adapted for TNT by writer and director Mike Robe, who had previously also helmed Turow’s Reversible Errors and Burden of Proof for television. Bill Pullman plays Sabich and Marcia Gay Harden (only seen in flashback) is Barbara and both do fairly well in their decidedly equivocal roles. It would of course all be so much easier if they could explore the story further by acknowledging how Presumed Innocent ends, but like the book, this adaptation chooses not to spoil that. Indeed, the basic structure of the novel is closely adhered to, switching backward and forwards in the timeline, though it does have to compress the book quite considerably to shoehorn the 500-page novel into a 90-minute film. Richard Schiff plays Molto and Alfred Molina is Sandy and do very well in what is a bland but perfectly enjoyable reduction of the novel, making rather heavy weather of the admittedly improbably romantic entanglements. I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that I watched this under less than optimal conditions as the film is only available to stream online currently and not on DVD – and I hate watching movies on my PC!
Scott Turow’s Innocent (2011)
Director: Mike Robe
Producer: Lisa Richardson, Mike Robe
Screenplay: Mike Robe
Cinematography: John S. Bartley
Art Direction: Eric Fraser
Music: Laura Karpman
Cast: Bill Pullman, Marcia Gay Harden, Richard Schiff, Mariana Klaveno, Alfred Molina, Callard Harris, Janet Kidder, Tahmoh Penikett, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Nicole Oliver