Scott Turow and John Grisham are the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of courtroom fiction. Both men are experienced lawyers, and Turow continues to maintain an active legal practice in Chicago. For the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of this century, they have been perennial occupants of positions on the New York Times bestseller list. Turow and Grisham are friendly rivals. Currently, they often appear together to speak on their shared opposition to the death penalty in America. “John sells more books and I have better reviews,” Turow says. “John’s a wonderful storyteller and a wonderful guy. He has a much wider readership than I do. He’s happy to be read by people in junior high school. I’m trying to write serious novels that don’t have as broad an appeal.” The comparison is apt. Grisham’s courtroom scenes lack the style and substance of Turow’s. Indeed, Grisham occasionally writes novels that have no connection whatsoever to the courthouse. Regardless of the difference, many readers, including this reviewer, eagerly look forward to each new Grisham or Turow book.
The anticipation for INNOCENT was heightened because it is a sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT, the 1987 courtroom novel that made Turow a household name. It marks the return of Rusty Sabich, the young prosecutor wrongly charged with murder and picks up his life 20 years after he was exonerated. Having enjoyed a career as a successful prosecuting attorney and trial court judge, Sabich finds himself as presiding judge of the appellate court with a clear path to election to the state supreme court. While the fictional Kindle County is the setting for INNOCENT, the name cannot disguise that it is Cook County in Chicago, and the criminal courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue is the blueprint for Turow’s narrations.
INNOCENT begins when Sabich awakens one morning to discover that his wife, Barbara, has passed away during the night, but he waits more than 24 hours to notify authorities. Readers of PRESUMED INNOCENT will easily recall that this is not the first woman in Rusty’s life to die under mysterious circumstances. An investigation commences, which ironically is led by Tommy Molto, the prosecutor who was in charge of the investigation into the murder that was the foundation of PRESUMED INNOCENT. For his part, Sabich once again seeks the legal talent of Sandy Stern, the lawyer who successfully defended him 20 years ago.
In Turow’s novels, lawyers are real people, not the supermen who one often finds in Grisham’s books. His characters have human flaws and difficulties. Thus we find Stern battling the ravages of cancer, but rallying himself to defend his client. Stern and Molto are longtime bitter enemies, each man remembering and reopening the wounds from the 20-year-old legal battle. Throughout the portrayal, Turow recognizes and masterfully depicts the human frailties of lawyers and the law.
While INNOCENT starts slowly, readers know where the storyline is headed. Sabich is charged with the murder of his wife. His trial occupies the second half of the novel, and as the courtroom is entered, the narrative moves into warp speed. Turow’s eye for courtroom detail is simply magnificent. Courtroom novels and dramas often cut corners and shorten narratives to move the plot along. Turow avoids that easy action in his literature, but he writes in such an effortless and realistic fashion that readers are never bored. In fact, aspiring lawyers can learn as much from a Turow novel as from a law school evidence class.
INNOCENT has the expected plot twists and turns, along with new characters one would expect from a sequel set 20 years after the first book. Both Stern and Sabich have children who are following in their footsteps and practicing law. Sabich’s trial is presided over by Judge Basil Yee, part learned trial judge and part Charlie Chan. Turow has a special knack for creating judicial stars in his novels. Lawyers in Chicago still debate who the model was for Judge Larren Lyttle, the presiding judge in PRESUMED INNOCENT.
This is the courtroom novel to read this summer, but with one caveat. If you have not read PRESUMED INNOCENT, you should do so right now. Often a sequel can be read on its own. But these two books are intertwined in a fashion that requires reading the first so as to fully savor and enjoy the follow-up. Can there be a third installment? One can only hope.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 4, 2010