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Innocent, I Presume

InnocentInnocent by Scott Turow

Reviewed by Chris Bolton

Scott Turow has been called "the thinking man's John Grisham," which is neither terribly fair to Grisham nor very accurate about Turow's strengths. He's more like "the feeling man's John Grisham." What makes Turow's books stand out, besides the lack of blockbuster histrionics, is their attention to the details of his characters.

It's been nearly 20 years since I read Turow's bestselling debut novel Presumed Innocent in high school. (That one sentence is giving me years of fodder for therapy.) What I recall best about the book isn't its dramatic plot as much as the tenor of the characters' emotional lives. Naturally, I remember the revelation of the murderer's identity. It was a stunner. I can't think of another whodunnit in which the reveal was quite so surprising to me -- or so resonant to the characters.

Before I write another word, rest assured that neither Turow nor I are about to spoil it for you. Not once during the 406 gripping pages of Innocent does Turow reveal the killer from the previous book. If you know who it is, that information casts a long, dark shadow over the sequel; if you don't, rest assured that, when you close the cover of the new novel, you will go running for a copy of the first one.

Innocent opens 20 years later with the protagonist of the earlier book, Rusty Sabich, previously a chief deputy prosecutor and now chief judge of the appellate court, charged with the murder of his wife, Barbara. I haven't given anything away; Turow sets this up in the first pages.

From there, the narrative splits between two time periods: before Barbara's death, as Rusty makes some questionable decisions about his life; and afterward, as acting prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto investigates to determine if what appears accidental was really a murder. Readers of Presumed Innocent will remember Molto is the deputy PA who prosecuted Rusty's first trial. Of course, a rematch is in order.

As Turow expertly tightens the screws on Rusty, the suspense builds to a fever pitch. But the plot never feels like a mechanical device, with Turow pounding buttons and pushing levers just to keep the gears in motion. As before, Rusty's own actions lead to his undoing, and what develops in the plot feels natural and inevitable. (Well, almost. There's one development that initially struck me as too convenient. But once I managed to choke it down, it settled just fine.)

What distinguishes Turow's work from boilerplate thrillers is his skill as a writer. Not only does he make the legal developments spellbinding -- giving us just enough terminology and procedure to follow along, without cramming the information down our throats -- but he makes the characters comes alive just as vividly. They often behave badly and make questionable choices (who doesn't?), and those actions are always believable and strike a note of truth that is sometimes lacking in popular fiction. Most of us can only imagine his accuracy in depicting the emotional turmoil of a murder trial. However, any reader will recognize the ecstasy and anguish (often intermingled) of his characters' moral indiscretions. Time and again, in one resonant scene after the next, Turow reveals he's every bit as skilled in matters of the human heart as he is in the intricacies of the law.

Innocent shifts its narrative constantly, with Molto's chapters related in third person while others are narrated in first person by Rusty, his adult son Nat, and another character whose identity I wouldn't dream of giving away. Although this technique can be disorienting at first, Turow finds convincing voices for each of these characters, of different ages and sexes, and uses them to draw us deep inside the minds of people who are not generally apt to share their feelings. By the time we reach the climax, the real surprise isn't in who did what to whom, but how it affects the characters who are involved.

It was inevitable that the huge success of Presumed Innocent would augur a sequel sooner or later. With Innocent, Scott Turow hasn't simply replicated a tried-and-true formula in order to rehash past glories. While haunted by the actions of the earlier book, Innocent stands firmly on its own -- and it's a revelation to see how the lives of the characters have developed in ways that are both surprising and heartbreaking.

Innocent qualifies as an "unputdownable beach book," which should please the publisher. Much more pleasing is the way the characters and their tangled emotions will stay with readers long after they've come home from the beach and finally put the book down.

Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, about a ten-year-old superhero, and created the web-series Wage Slaves, the second season of which premieres in May 2010. His short story set in Powell's City of Books, "The Red Room," was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Innocent
    Used Hardcover $3.48
  2. Presumed Innocent
    Used Mass Market $3.50
  3. Portland Noir (Akashic Noir)
    Used Trade Paper $10.50

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