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Thane Rosenbaum

Thane Rosenbaum

Posted: April 30, 2010 11:32 AM

Scott Turow Returns with Innocent (Presumed Innocent II)

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One thing is undeniably true about the law: It's better to be a spectator than a participant. There are few winners in courtrooms, even among those who win. The losers, of course, are forever lost. At least those who merely watch end up being entertained if not forewarned about the perils of coming before a judge in a court of law.

Fictional courtrooms are altogether different, however. People consume the law as a cultural experience all the time and throughout the ages. Some of the great works of literature, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, Dickens to Dostoevsky, and Kafka to Camus, have inserted the law as the centerpiece of stories that often end in misery. After all, even the great Atticus Finch didn't prevail in his epic courtroom star turn.

Of course, when it comes to television and films we have been living through the Golden Age of the law portrayed in art. David E. Kelley gave us Boston Legal, The Practice, and Ally McBeal. More recently there is The Good Wife and Damages. And as for films, there's A Few Good Men, A Civil Action, and Michael Clayton, along with a number of John Grisham novels that were adapted into movies.

One can even make the case that The People's Court and Judge Alex, among the various daytime courtroom programs that have vanquished the soap opera format, are essentially the law's version of "Reality TV," true operas of the human condition, played out in small claims court.

But among the Founding Fathers of this renaissance of law and culture is undoubtedly Scott Turow, the author of the bestselling novel, Presumed Innocent (1987) (which was also made into a film.) Turow arguably not only ignited a cultural movement, he also invented the literary legal thriller--faithful in describing the inner workings of the legal system and honest in depicting lawyers as flawed human beings. Turow turned a spellbinding, page-turner into a work of art.

Many books followed his debut as a novelist, but the stunning conclusion of Presumed Innocent invited a sequel, and Turow has now delivered just that with Innocent, a timely, pitch-perfect updating of the lives of the characters we came to both loathe and love.

It has been over 20 years since prosecutor Rusty Sabich was acquitted of the crime of murdering his colleague and former lover, Carolyn Polemus. Rusty, having just turned 60 is now the chief judge of the state appellate court with hopes of seeking election to the supreme court. During all these intervening years, Rusty has served as a judge--mostly of others, but also of himself. This is a more reflective Rusty, revisiting the choices he has made throughout his life even while contemplating more disastrous ones.

Many of the stock characters from Presumed Innocent return in Innocent--older and yet still enormously appealing. Rusty's campaign manager is Raymond Horgan, who was once the prosecuting attorney ("PA") who had made Rusty his chief deputy. Rusty's son, Nat, a boy during the Polemus murder trial is now a 28-year-old supreme court law clerk. And Rusty is still married to Barbara, the fault-lines in their marriage having deepened, and the reasons for his affair with Carolyn resurfacing once more.

That's right, Rusty Sabich, king of the catastrophes that spring from adultery, is at it, yet again--this time, however, with one of his former law clerks, Anna Vostic, an equal beauty to Carolyn, but also decades younger. Rusty is one of those men with the resistance of papier-mache when it comes to the flirtations of a smoking-hot colleague or, in this case, underling.

Rusty is predictably self-destructive, knowing full well that in the backdrop of this late, mid-life crisis looms a fragile wife and an election campaign. But all of his reflections are interrupted, however, by (yes, you guessed it) another one of Turow's masterful and suspenseful murder trials that was worth the 20-year wait. Barbara is now dead. Was it an accident, did she take her own life, or did Rusty kill her?

Tommy Molto returns to the sequel as the more matured and chastened PA who, as an assistant, had prosecuted Rusty and ended up being accused of tampering with evidence. Molto is Turow's Javert (Les Miserables), the relentless prosecutor who sees in the rigid following of law an opportunity for personal vengeance and vindication. And, of course, no Presumed Innocent sequel could possibly take place without the always courtly and shrewd defense attorney, Sandy Stern, who is now terminally sick and slow in movement, but still graces the courtroom with great flair and panache.

Innocent takes account of the changed world since Presumed Innocent, where finger prints and fax machines once represented cutting edge technology. Turow goes all cyber and CSI in Innocent with DNA evidence, Internet searches, and the forensic examination of a computer hard drive.

All Turow readers and those who subsist on law as a guilty pleasure will love and admire Innocent. The passage of real time allows Turow to transport his characters into a new set of plausible circumstances that invariably tie them to the past. After all, not unlike Turow's fictional world, we have all aged during these past 20 years, and the ensuing years have neither lessened our mistakes nor, necessarily, made us any wiser.

It is Turow's great gift that in tampering with the finality of Presumed Innocent he has given us yet another glimpse of how courtrooms expose humanity at its most vulnerable, and how lawyers can be humanized in fiction in ways that we rarely see in real life.