Critical Analysis of Anatomy of a Murder - By Stephanie Lunsford
"Everybody loves a good mystery," or so the saying goes. In 1958 it was indeed true; Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder was published and read by 1,600,000 Americans. It rose all the way to number one on the bestseller list for the month of January,
and second for the year. The book inspired a movie and a Broadway play. However, after 1959, the book virtually disappeared from the literary map. Nothing was written about it, it is not talked about, it does not have any fame whatsoever today. What wa
s so special about this book? Why did it become so popular so quickly? And disappear so quickly? These are questions I will seek to answer in the course of this essay. To account for the extreme popularity of Anatomy of a Murder we must look at a number
of factors. First, what reviewers had to say about the book, this will give us a good starting point for examining the popularity of the book. We should also look at what was going on the world contemporary to the publication of this novel. It will also
be important to take a subjective look at the book. Among these qualifications there are several others which I will discuss. Anatomy of a Murder was the first in a long generation of best-selling courtroom drama's. It was popular, for its attention
to detail, sensationalist plot, and the return to the small-town lifestyle of the early 1950's, among other things.
When readers examine the critical reviews of Anatomy of a Murder, they do not find excessive amounts of praise, nor any claims to literary greatness. The author himself admits to many literary failings in his books. He makes comments like, his editor ha
d to "wade through" his prose, to find the gem of a great novel within. John Voelker was a career lawyer, who made it as far as to become a State Supreme Court Justice of Michigan. Writing was a sideline for much of his life, although he did eventually
retire from the Supreme Court to pursue his writing career. None of Voelker's other books came even close to being as popular as Anatomy of a Murder. He wrote two other courtroom mystery novels after Anatomy, The People vs. Kirk and Laughing Whitefish
. Neither of these books was well received by the public or by the critics. Voelker writes: "after Anatomy of a Murder my audience returned to the broom closet." He suggests that before and after his first novel became a bestseller, the size of his read
ership was extremely small. He is correct; none of his other books made it anywhere near the bestseller list. I am not certain that John Voelker could be characterized as a good writer. Anatomy is a good book, but it is not particularly well written.
Voelker's critics point out his thin characterization, wordy descriptions and fairly uninteresting dialogue. Yet, still thousands of people read this book. There is just something about it that seems to draw readers in. J. M. Cain of the New York Time
s Book Review said; "rarely have I been so entertained as I have been so by this strange novel, and for the life of me I can't tell why." This is the response many people had to the book.
Anatomy of a Murder is too long. It is 437 pages of very small print, long paragraphs and lots of words. The book centers on the lives of a few characters that are for the most part standard to the crime novel. The bitter detective/lawyer, the smart sa
vvy secretary, drunken sidekick who comes through in the end, the sexy woman and the ambiguously guilty client. The characters are superficial at best and at worst very poorly developed. Voelker was not particularly interested in the lives of his charac
ters. He did not try to delve deep into their psyche; Voelker was much more interested in the facts and the plot of the case at hand in the novel. Critics and readers alike have duly noted this aspect of his writing. One critic, Joseph Hitrec of the S
aturday Review wrote, "Mr. Traver doesn't pretend to be interested in the inner lives of his characters." This failing of the novel did not affect its readership. People like the book regardless of the lack of depth represented in the characters.
Despite the criticism of Anatomy of a Murder, it became instantly popular. There seems to be something about which is irresistible to readers and critics alike. The majority of the critics who read Anatomy professed to like the book despite its literary
failings. Perhaps, L. G. Offord describes this phenomenon best:
"Writing in a style which is clear and competent rather than inspired, he is nevertheless telling the truth about a profession which will always be something of a mystery to the layman; and truthfulness and enthusiasm go a long way to making a good book.
This one is readable indeed."
Voelker's book is not one that will live in history as a part of the literary canon, yet it is a "good read." Despite all the extraneous details and poor characterization, the book survives and manages to hold the readers interest. This is part of why
it became so popular. It is a good, interesting and easy read. Voelker provides his readers with just enough of everything to make them want to know more, and thus draws the reader in.
John Voelker's Public Persona
John Voelker himself was an interesting person. A career lawyer, he had achieved a certain status in his hometown of Ishpeming, Michigan. For a long time he served as the District Attorney for the town, eventually rising to become a State Supreme Cou
rt Justice. He gives the impression of being an All-American family man. The 1950's are notorious for being a time filled with family values and closeness. His way of life could only improve his popularity. To the American public, John Voelker must h
ave seemed ideal. Towards the end of the fifties, when Anatomy of a Murder was published, America was drifting away from the "Leave-it-to-beaver" family lifestyle. John Voelker and his small-town novel showed a return to that lifestyle. There is a cert
ain nostalgia present in Anatomy of a Murder. John Voelker was a small-town man, living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The only time he ever lived away from Ishpeming was while he was at college and Law School in a small town very close to his home
town. His writing shows a return to the grassroots of society. All of his characters live in a small town, and exhibit all the characteristics of small town people. They like, Voelker himself, seem to be untouched and remote from the rest of the world.
In 1950's society the norm was small-town USA. Readers could imagine easily that they were reading about their own town and could easily cast themselves in the role of Paul Biegler or Laura Manion. This is part of the attractiveness of Anatomy of a M
urder. John Voelker and his book together give the reader a sense of home and reality - this goes a long way towards making a book a success.
The Crime Novel
The crime/mystery novel in general, is an intensely popular genre. Especially in today's marketplace; John Grisham is at the top of the bestseller list every year with one of his novels, Scott Turow is another author who also tops the lists with his no
vels about the law. America is fascinated with the law and the way it works. Books are not the only place that the crime/mystery genre rules supreme. In the 90's there are at least seven prime time shows about the law, Law and Order, The Practice, and
Ally McBeal to name a few. This is no different from the love of this genre that existed in the 50's when Anatomy originally came out. At that time, Anatomy of a Murder was the only novel in its genre on the bestseller list for the year. However, it
was still an incredibly popular type of book to read. It also dominated television as well. Perry Mason was in its second season and going strong. This may have contributed to the positive reception Anatomy received. Everyone likes to be kept in suspe
nse, and Anatomy manages to do that very well. It is a classic within its genre. Voelker, with his unique knowledge of the law, gives a new depth of detail to Anatomy of a Murder.
The "law" has always been a great unknown in American society. We feel that it is something only certified people should be able to handle. However, it has always been a matter of great curiosity for the average lay person as well. This fascination wi
th the inner workings of the law is why television shows, movies and books within the genre are so popular. Voelker gives readers all kinds of details about the law, and especially the workings of a murder trial. The key to Anatomy of a Murder is in the
details. That is why it is such a good read; it draws you in with the desire to learn about the law. Part of the attractiveness of a book of this type comes from the generality of the characters within the novel and the incredible detail that surrounds
the trial itself. Paul Biegler is a detective in his own right. It does not matter what his inner turmoil is, nor what his moral stance is regarding Manion's guilt. The readers interest lies not with the characters, but with the trial itself. This i
s one of the main reasons for the novel's success and why it works.
In many ways this novel is reminiscent to The Firm or basically any John Grisham novel. It is based in the workplace and surrounds the profession of the law. It contains much of the same detailed look at the law. While the plot and the idea behind bot
h novels are very different, it is still useful to compare and contrast the two. John Grisham is writing to a 1990's audience, John Voelker writes to a 1950's one. Voelker shows a more positive view of the law, yet still a jaundiced one. Grisham is v
ery negative about the law and law firms in general. The Firm speaks to a modern need to see violence and thrills in a mystery novel. It cannot merely have the excitement of a trial anymore, there has to be something else. However, had the two been wri
ting at the same time - they would have been competitors on the best-seller list.
It is hard to derive a definitive answer as to why Anatomy of a Murder was so popular. It is an interesting book, and an easy read. Anatomy seems to have defied the odds to some extent. It is a long book, characters are poorly developed and have fairl
y uninteresting dialogues with one another. Yet, it stayed on the bestseller list for two years. One reason it made it to a second year was the release of the movie version of the book. The movie was even more popular than the book, earning several aca
demy award nominations. It managed to sustain the popularity of the novel for some time. The release of the book in paperback also boosted sales again. However, despite all of this, the book did not remain popular for a very long time. Since its pub
lication and initial two years of intense popularity, the book has basically disappeared. It is relatively unknown and is seldom read today. Despite the publishers claim to "classic," if you asked most people on the street they would have never heard of
Anatomy of a Murder was an incredibly popular book for its time. It was a one of a kind, new, and interesting work. People who read it initially became deeply engrossed in the story of the sensational murder trial in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. T
he novels popularity was short-lived, as was its fame. To try and explain why it was so popular is to try and figure out which came first the chicken or the egg. We can make an educated guess as to why people enjoyed it so much, however it will always r
emain something of a mystery in itself. This book came out of nowhere and the author never replicated its success. Yet it was a bestseller and is a good read. I recommend taking the time to read it someday, you will find it dated, but entertaining none
theless. It is a nice break from John Grisham.