Fiction Review: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987)

Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, his first published murder mystery/legal thriller novel in 1987, was a phenomenal success both with the critics and the popular readers. It spent 45 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and is one of the very first novels of its kind – namely the murder mystery genre, that also successfully explores the craft of character development through skillful narration, a sophisticated storyline and a piercing look into the complex psychological makeup of the story’s central characters. It is considered a breakthrough novel in the genre of mystery fiction precisely because of Turow’s success in merging highbrow literary techniques into a genre that is often dominated by an action-driven plot without much emphasis on character development.

The book begins with the death of Carolyn Polhemus, a deputy prosecuting attorney in Kindle County, a fictional city in the Midwest. She was found brutally murdered and raped in her own apartment, and all evidence seems to suggest that the perpetrator knew Carolyn intimately. The protagonist and narrator of the story, Rusty Sabich, is a colleague and ex-lover of Carolyn. He is the chief deputy prosecuting attorney in the county, and was involved in an affair with Carolyn that ended just a few months before her murder. Rusty is married to Barbara, who is quiet, moody and fiercely devoted to both her husband and their eight-year-old son Nat. Rusty’s boss, Raymond Horgan, the chief P.A., is up for re-election, and with his busy schedule, he assigns Sabich to investigate the crime. As Rusty sets out to solve the murder, he discovers that all the clues point back to him. When Rusty fails to uncover the murderer and Horgan loses the election, Horgan turns against his chief deputy and testifies against Rusty for the murder of Carolyn Polhemus.

The story reveals itself slowly as we see everything unfold through Rusty’s point of view. We watch him quietly cover up the evidence that suggests his guilt, but we are never quite sure if he is really the murderer. What makes Presumed Innocent such an innovative example of a hybrid of literary and genre fiction is its psychological probing of the central character(s) in the story. Through Rusty’s narration, we learn about his obsession with Carolyn, his allegiance to his wife and son, and his own ambition and passion about justice and the law. We get a glimpse of Rusty’s infatuation with Carolyn that is symbolic of his own longing for something that is unattainable. Carolyn Polhemus’ sexy and aggressive persona provides an escape from Rusty’s deeply troubled marriage to Barbara, while the quiet desperation and stubborn persistence in the marriage resonates with a truth that is alarming. By the time Rusty is accused of the murder, we know that Carolyn had cast him aside for a better prospect, his marriage is nearly destroyed and Rusty has plenty of reasons to want to kill Carolyn Polhemus.

Turow carefully crafts the psychology of the narrative to have the readers presume that if we can understand what makes Rusty tick, we can solve the crime. At the same time, we are presented with numerous other possibilities for the murder. Rusty Sabich was not the only fool who fell under Carolyn’s spells. Carolyn’s unscrupulous personality contributed to her eventual demise, but the final revelation of the reason for the murder and the murderer is unexpected, yet not surprising, if we were to truly understand the secrets of the human heart.

The success of the novel rests in Turow’s depiction of a man who is flawed, naive and not fully understanding of himself or those closest to him. Rusty represents the dilemma that we all face in life. He is a good man who strayed from his marriage, but he loves his family and is passionate about his work. He is also deceitful, and despite the fact that we are in his head and learning the story from his point of view, we question how much of what he is narrating is reality and how much of it are lies that he is telling himself. Rusty Sabich’s innocence or guilt has as much to do with Carolyn Polhemus’ death as it does with the consequences of his actions. As the title of the novel suggests, we will presume innocence until proven guilty, but humanity is such that true innocence is often merely a concept, and we are mostly all culpable of much of the pain and misery that surround us.

“I reached for Carolyn. In a part of me, I knew my gesture was ill-fated. I must have recognized her troubled vanity, the poverty of feeling that reduced her soul. I must have known that what she offered was only the grandest of illusions. But still I fell for that legend she had made up about herself. The glory. The glamour. The courage. All her determined grace. To fly above this obscure world of anguish, this black universe of pain! For me there will always be that struggle to escape the darkness. I reached for Carolyn. I adored her, as the faith healer is adored by the halt and lame. But I wanted with wild, wild abandon, with a surging, defiant, emboldened desire, I wanted the extreme – the exultation, the passion and the moment, the fire, the light. I reached for Carolyn. In hope. Hope. Everlasting hope.”

– Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow, p. 431






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