The Lasting Influence of Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent"

By Michael BourneDecember 4, 2013

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

TWENTY-SIX YEARS after its publication, few would disagree that Scott Turow’s bestselling legal thriller Presumed Innocent blazed a trail for other writer-lawyers like John Grisham and Richard North Patterson. It is also easy to see how Turow and other popular novelists of his era like Tom Wolfe and Donna Tartt provided a template for contemporary authors like Gillian Flynn, whose 2012 book Gone Girl incorporates literary techniques to flesh out her plot machinery. But the phenomenal success of Presumed Innocent, which spent 45 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, was also a turning point in the decades-long process that saw highbrow literature and middlebrow entertainment, once sworn enemies, merge into the hybrid literary world we live in today, in which literary writers routinely use murder mysteries to propel their novels and genre authors routinely grant their characters elaborate inner struggles to add literary heft to their plots.

Turow did not cause this shift on his own, of course. He caught a wave set in motion years earlier by the culture at large, and in the literary world by writers like John le Carré and Stephen King, who bent the conventions of their genres to more serious ends. But if we want to understand how this cultural shift worked, and untangle the roots of today’s literary and commercial fiction, there is no better place to start than the story of how Turow, a one-time Stegner Fellow at Stanford who dreamed of being his generation’s James Joyce, came to write Presumed Innocent.

Today, at age 64, Scott Turow is a well-tuned vintage sports car of a person, small-framed and fit, nattily attired for our afternoon’s conversation at the Vancouver International Writers Festival in a green-and-yellow sweater vest and an open-collared shirt. A practicing attorney for most of his adult life, Turow remains a partner at SNR Denton, the legal behemoth that recently bought out his long-time Chicago law firm, but he admits that since he became president of the Author’s Guild in 2010 he rarely goes to the office. One senses that, once upon a time, given enough open road and a subject worth the expenditure of fuel, Turow’s mind could set land-speed records, but now, in the twilight of his career, he hums along with the satisfied air of a man who knows he has done well, but only because he found the work he was made for and then gave it everything he had.

Turow was born and raised in the Jewish enclave of West Rogers Park on Chicago’s North Side, the son of a Russian Jewish obstetrician, whose presence looms over much of Turow’s work. His father was a talented and hard-working doctor, Turow says, but also a complicated man whose mercurial personality proved something of a mystery to his son. “I really didn’t know if he was a good guy or a bad guy,” Turow says. “Different people who knew him well have different views. All I know for sure is that he was a phenomenal liar about himself.”

Turow was already writing seriously when he arrived at Amherst College, where he attracted the attention of the college’s writer-in-residence Tillie Olsen, author of the classic story collection Tell Me A Riddle. Olsen took Turow under her wing, and by the time he graduated, he had published two stories in reputable literary magazines, including The Transatlantic Review, originally founded in the 1920s by novelist Ford Madox Ford.

After Amherst, Turow began a two-year Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, then as now the most prestigious fellowship of its kind in the country. There, he found himself in the crossfire of a battle between an Avant Garde faction, which viewed art as a sort of machine that could be improved through constant experimentation, and Realists, who sought fiction that delivered “the intricate rendering of daily experience” without resorting to melodrama or narrative tricks. Turow sided with the Realists, whose guiding lights were Saul Bellow and John Updike, but found the form an awkward fit. “The problem with their work,” he explains, “was, to put it bluntly, people didn’t like to read it, because as I commented a few years ago in an essay about Bellow in The Atlantic, the plot of a Bellow novel can basically be summarized in a single sentence: ‘A guy wanders around.’ Or: ‘A guy wanders around thinking a lot.’ They were meant to be uneventful, by design.”

Still, he hankered for the critical respect that seemed to go along with the moral seriousness of the Realist school, even if it meant stifling his inclination for plot-driven fiction. “There was a sort of junior Dickens hanging around inside of me,” he says, “and I wanted to be James Joyce, or if not James Joyce then at least Tillie Olsen, and if neither of the above, then Saul Bellow, I guess. I think that’s a really typical story of young people in the arts. You talk about finding a voice, but some of what you’re talking about is finding a vision.”

In retrospect, Turow sees the book he wrote at Stanford, which focused on a rent strike in a Chicago slum, as the work of a writer fundamentally at war with his own instincts. “I was making myself crazy trying to pull out of myself the stuff that would make me the next James Joyce, and write sentences that were perfect, and a lot of it was against my own nature because my impulse was to tell this basically suspenseful story about who owns the apartment building,” he says. “None of that could I see at the time.”

Thus, when the rent-strike novel didn’t sell, it was almost a relief for him to ditch the Joycean mantle and go to Harvard Law School. Drawn to the inherent drama of criminal law, Turow took a job with the US Attorneys’ Office in Chicago, and began writing fiction on the commute into work, a habit that would last for decades. He was an extraordinarily successful prosecutor, serving as lead counsel on high-profile corruption cases, including Operation Greylord, a massive undercover investigation into widespread bribing of judges in Chicago’s Cook County that netted 93 indictments and the convictions of 15 judges. This case, and others like it that he worked on during these years, turn up time and again in fictional form in his novels, including Presumed Innocent, which contains a subplot involving payoffs to the judge presiding over the central trial in the novel.

Turow still recalls the moment when the idea for Presumed Innocent came to him. It was in the early 1980s, by which time he had been promoted to a supervisory role, and he was in court to evaluate a young prosecutor he was overseeing:

There was a witness on the stand, and I knew what the guy was going to say — for Christ’s sake, I’d approved the prosecution — but the suspense of whether he was actually going to say it and the inherent drama of this account of how something bad had happened was just really gripping to me. I’m unable to get myself out of my seat and I look around the room and everybody is sitting and staring at the witness stand and their mouths are hanging open. That’s the grip that crime has on all of us. It’s the story of transgression that’s so fascinating, and I’m thinking, I’m really interested in this stuff. This is what I ought to be writing. I got the idea for Presumed Innocent right then and I started writing it.

This time, he says, the goal was to reinvent the murder mystery — a task made easier for him by the fact that he wasn’t a huge reader of murder mysteries. Presumed Innocent begins, as all murder mysteries must, with a dead body, in this case, that of brainy blonde county prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus, who is found naked in her apartment bound in a web of ropes, the victim of a savage rape or perhaps a rough sex game gone wrong. But when Turow’s narrator Rusty Sabich, who is both a colleague of Carolyn’s in the prosecutor’s office and her former lover, sets out to investigate her murder, he quickly finds that all the clues point back to him.

This, in effect, turns the novel into the first-person testimony Rusty never gives at his trial. We watch him quietly cover up evidence that points to his guilt even before we realize he is going to be accused of the crime. Because we are in his head, we realize he has not only the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime, but the intelligence to get away with it. By making Rusty the novel’s narrator, Turow is subverting more than just the mystery genre; he’s calling into question a central conceit of psychological realism, which is that, through fiction, we can come to know the human heart. Turow’s point is that we can’t, not really. Rusty is, like Turow’s own father, unknowable. He isn’t a bad man. He has strayed in his marriage, but then so have many other essentially decent people, and he loves his son, cares deeply for his emotionally unstable wife, and is passionate about justice and the law. He is also plainly lying to us. If he were innocent, why would he wait to get the fingerprint analysis done? Why would he try so hard to get the forensic pathologist to see the crime as a stranger-rape rather than a case of consensual sex gone wrong as the evidence suggests? And why on earth is he, a man still desperately in love with the deceased, investigating the murder in the first place?

This helps explain why Presumed Innocent was such an explosive bestseller in 1987, and also why, in my view, it deserves to be read as a seminal novel in the history of the melding of literary and genre fiction. The novel takes the standard conceit of a murder mystery, (the reader has to try to figure out whodunnit before the cops do) and the central concern of literary fiction, (a deep psychological understanding of a central figure’s soul) and wraps them both into one propulsive narrative package: if we can figure out what makes Rusty tick, we can solve the crime. But Rusty, like Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom and many of Bellow’s protagonists, is a man of many layers who does not fully understand himself. Rusty Sabich is, in other words, a character straight out of late-20th century American literary fiction who happens to be caught in the middle of a murder mystery.

None of this narrative legerdemain would matter, of course, if Turow couldn’t bring Rusty alive on the page as a fully realized character worthy of our interest. And that, finally, is the source of the novel’s lasting value. In Turow’s hands, Rusty is a representative figure of his age. The child of working-class immigrants, he has by dint of hard work and intelligence risen to a place of respect in society, but like a wolf that has chewed off a limb to escape a trap, there is a piece missing in him, a wound that will never heal. His father, a Yugoslav who escaped Nazi persecution, is, to Rusty’s deep humiliation, a troubled, rageful man who hasn’t paid his taxes in 25 years. A scene, narrated in retrospect, in which Rusty finds an attorney to help his father fight federal charges, tells us all we need to know about the powerful fears eating at Rusty. Watching his father talk to the lawyer, Rusty sees through the old man, unshaven and plainly terrified, to his years of suffering in the Nazi camps:

They ate a horse, my cousin Ilya told me when I was nine or ten… An old nag had died. It keeled over in the night and froze. It lay in the snow for three days, and then some guard allowed it to be dragged beyond the barbed wire fence of the compound. The inmates attacked it; they pulled off the hide with their bare hands and grabbed at the flesh… My father had seen that.

This fact, that he is one generation removed from the terrors of the state, has propelled Rusty to side with the state, become the one who metes out justice, not the one subject to it — until, of course, he meets Carolyn Polhemus, who represents both an escape from the cautious trudge of Rusty’s daily life as well as a sexy blonde symbol of his heightened status. His love for her is volcanic, beyond his conscious control. By the time he is accused of her murder, we know that she has destroyed his marriage and then thrown him over for his boss, the chief prosecuting attorney, and we have little doubt that Rusty is angry enough to want her dead.

But, okay, if Presumed Innocent is such an important book, why isn’t it routinely featured on college syllabi and discussed in the same reverent tones as the work of writers who broke out in the 1980s like Don DeLillo and Richard Ford, or those of other masters of the high-low, like Stephen King? Part of the answer, of course, lies in the company Turow’s legal thrillers keep on bookstore shelves. But a more persuasive culprit, I would argue, is Turow himself.

Presumed Innocent is a wildly innovative work of fiction that upends several genres at once while simultaneously creating an entirely new subgenre of its own. But after that book, Turow stopped innovating. His later books, including this year’s Identical, while all a cut above the general run of mystery novels, stay obediently within the proscribed lines of their genre. The investigator-as-suspect plot was a card he could only play once, and even in his 2010 sequel, Innocent, wherein Rusty is once again accused of murder, Turow does not reach the same height of intimacy between reader and character that made his first novel such a hit.

Those who like their formal lines brightly drawn may find it hard to see Presumed Innocent for the seminal work that it is, but it’s time we began to appreciate the shift that Turow helped bring about. With the deaths of Updike and Bellow in the past decade, and the recent retirements of Philip Roth and Alice Munro, many lament the death of the literary giant, the author of serious books whose work speaks to the broader culture. But this lament says more about shifts in literary style than it does about cultural relevance. Writers as wildly different as Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and Donna Tartt maintain high literary standards, both in terms of language and cultural truth-telling, while still racking up impressive sales. That Chabon borrows tropes from comic books and detective novels or that Tartt structures her books as thrillers hardly makes their books frivolous pulp. It just means that our understanding of what makes for a good book has changed. Except at the margins, it is no longer enough for a writer to command a magisterial prose style or an original vision. We expect our literary giants to tell us a story, and if there’s a dead body or a juicy romance at the center of it, all the better.

Scott Turow didn’t create that change by himself, but he did anticipate it, and his best work, Presumed Innocent, deserves to be read not merely as a well-crafted legal thriller, but as a novel that helped shape the literary world we live in today.


Michael Bourne is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers and a staff writer for the online literary site The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers and a staff writer for the online literary site The Millions. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Potomac Review, The Orange Coast Review, River City, Oakland Review, and online at Tin House's Flash Fridays. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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