INNOCENT by Scott Turow

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

***** / ***** (4 fedora tips for the book, 2.5 for the movie)

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25 Responses to INNOCENT by Scott Turow

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I’ll admit, Sergio, that I haven’t seen the film. However, I agree that the book is very, very nicely done. And it’s a terrific (in my opinion, anyway) follow-on to Presumed Innocent. One of the things I like about the book is that I think Turow manages to weave the personal and the legal stories together in a very effective way.

  2. Colin says:

    I’ve read Presumed Innocent and am familiar with the film too but this follow up is still an unknown quantity. I do have a copy of the novel but that old complaint about chunky books which I haul out periodically is part of the reason it remains unread on the shelf.

    • This one is a pretty speedy read actually chum – I think, if you liked the first, you will also get a lot out of this one.

      • Colin says:

        Good to hear. I did like the first one well enough, despite sharing your own ambivalence towards a lot of modern legal fiction. I’ll try to fit it in the schedule as soon as I can.

        • Good man! Don’t bother with the film though … 🙂

          • Colin says:

            I’ll maybe give it a look if I find myself at a loose end some time, but it’s not a priority for me.

          • Which I understand – it’s a bit of a chunky beast! I remember my nieces when they were about 7 looking at me in awe as I read the first volume of GAME OF THRONES – they could;t believe it could be so long – and that it didn’t have any pictures! It’s a fantastic book (but I’ve not touched the sequels).

  3. tracybham says:

    I have mixed feelings about this book and film. Maybe someday I will try them. Presumed Innocent (the movie) really bothered me when I watched it when it first came out. I think that turned me off Turow’s books. I had no idea that most of his books are about one county. Very interesting.

    • Well, fair enough, if you didn’t like the first one, chances are you won’t like this. Why didn;t you like it, then?

      • tracybham says:

        A difficult question to answer. We rented it in 1991, and that is a long time, so my memory may be faulty. I was just blown away by the ending, an emotional reaction. I probably would have had a different reaction later or now. You never know. Maybe in 2016, I could read Presumed Innocent and then try Innocent. I will look up his books more. As far as this movie goes, I do like Bill Pullman and Richard Schiff a lot, so maybe I will try it some day.

        • Thanks Tracy. Fascinating to go back, though annoyingly sometimes it does just confirm what you always thought and just annihilates any thoughts you might have had about personal growth 🙂

  4. Patti Abbott says:

    He is a very talented writer. But I have never seen the movie.

  5. Yvette says:

    I tried and failed to get into PRESUMED INNOCENT this past year and I suspect I was probably put off by what I consider the triteness of the plot and the less than intelligent actions of the Rusty character at the beginning. (I stopped reading after a few chapters.) So I probably won’t be reading this one either, Sergio. And may I ask – what are the odds of the same man being tried twice for murder by the same prosecutor for a similar crime? I don’t know, it sounds operatic to me. Hey, maybe if they turned it into an opera, it might interest me.

    P.S. I wish I could write like you, my friend. Good work.

    • You are always too kind, Yvette! But the story is actually pretty compelling as a mass of political as well as personal chicanery is revealed. As for the sequel, well, in a way that is part of the point as it is about some of the previous participants exacting retribution two decades later. Turow does a good job, honest 🙂

  6. Keishon says:

    I enjoyed Presumed Innocent. Good movie.
    What I find interesting is your comments on Turrow being a cut above the rest in the legal thriller genre. Legal thrillers are my least favorite and I rarely read them. However, I did buy Presumed Innocent last year. I started it but found it easy to put down. My one word description for it would be pretentious – from where I stopped reading. I just want to know if it’s worth the effort to continue.

    • Well, I suppose the point I was alluding to is that I think he takes himself seriously as a writer md, in my opinion, has earned that in that he tackles larger themes without losing his grasp on plot and character. If you find the writing pretentious, then this is where we are going to disagree, so not sure how I can convince you 🙂

  7. Sergio, I have read a few authors of legal thrillers and while I haven’t read Scott Turow, it’s interesting that you should think he is better than most others. That certainly appears to be the case from your review. I could sense a not-so complex intensity in the novel, no doubt enriched by Turow’s narrative.

  8. I liked Presumed Innocent – book and movie. Not sure I want to read this, BUT what really interested me was the idea of a timeline at the beginning of each chapter – what an excellent idea, I wish all writers with mixed timelines would do this!

  9. Pingback: Top 25 Courtroom Movies | Tipping My Fedora

  10. Diane Jackson says:

    How come Barbara’s fingerprints were not found on the bottle of pills she must have opened.

    • No idea Diane, though I thought it had all been dealt with. Was there the implication Rusty has manipulated things for the sake of their son? But it’s been 10 years since I read it I’m afraid …

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