Presumed Innocent, written by Scott Turow, hit the bestseller list in August of 1987 and staunchly remained there for two months. A courtroom drama, the story of a prosecutor wrongfully accused of his lover's murder, the novel received rave reviews for
its realism and suspense. "Presumed Innocent is an achievement of a high order...a cast of characters who are dismayingly credible. Nobody who picks it up is going to lay it down lightly," Wallace Stegner wrote. Writer Anne Rice said, "Presumed Innoce
nt is without a doubt an ambitious and absorbing novel, the work of a profoundly gifted writer with a fine distinctive voice"(New York Times Book Review, June, 1987). Turow's novel benefited greatly from his insider's experience as United States Assist
ant Attorney in Chicago and his earlier stint as a creative writing teacher at Stanford, reaping most of its realism from the fact that Turow knew his material quite well in addition to being a talented writer. Presumed Innocent's success lies in its au
thorship, its oxymoronic combination of realism and suspense, as well as its timely publication proximity to the Iran Contra Affair, an event calling public attention to litigious activity.
Scott Turow began his law career in 1978 as Assistant Attorney in Chicago. He had previously attended Harvard Law School after finishing a teaching career in creative writing at Stanford University. This combination of literary talent and law already g
ave Turow an edge in writing courtroom fiction; not only was he a writer, but he knew a great deal about the law. Many of Presumed Innocent's realistic details stem from knowledge that only a lawyer could possess. "...The heart of this case is the phys
ical evidence: the glass with two of my fingerprints, identified from the knowns I gave a dozen years ago when I became a deputy P.A.; the telephone MUD records...the malt covered Zorak V fibers...which match samples taken from the carpeting in my home"(1
58). Turow's legal jargon is obviously more advanced than the laypersons', and yet easily comprehensible due to his matter-of-fact writing style. Descriptions of places unique to law-enforcement officials and prosecutors are also succinct and clear.
"I thank Lou for his help and head down to the Pathology Lab. The building looks more or less like an old high school...It is coppers wall to wall, men-and more than a few women these days-in deep blue shirts...People of my generation do not like cops...
I've worked with policemen for two years. Some I like; some I don't"(92). The reader can get a feel for a pathology lab, a place not normally frequented by most people; Turow knows his subject well and conveys realism to his reader, inviting trust and
enthusiasm for the rest of the novel.
Turow's career also surfaces not only in his knowledge of legal fundamentals, but also in his plot lines. In Chicago, Turow specialized in investigating high profile corruption cases in the Illinois judiciary. In Presumed Innocent, a judge is guilty of
accepting bribes, a plot tangent alluded to in reference to a "B-file." "...a B-file, as we call it, referring to the subsection of the state criminal code addressed to bribery of law enforcement officials...At first, I assumed the B designation was a c
omputer mess-up, maybe an included charge. But there in no companion case; in fact, this one is listed as an Un-Sub-unknown subject-which means a non-arrest..."(51). A high profile judge is discovered by the narrator, Rusty Sabich, to have taken money f
rom drug dealers. Luckily this judge is also residing over the narrator's pending murder trial, a fact which Sabich's attorney does not refrain from needling in open court, thereby covertly blackmailing the judge. Turow's two-pronged corruption, on b
oth the judge's part as well as in reference to the subtle blackmail, illustrates pervasive corruption in the legal system; Turow's career experience with such corruption is evident through his knowledgeable plot lines.
Although Turow establishes realism through his intimate understanding of the legal system as well as his literary talent for creating characters, he balances potentially boring legal jargon with masterful suspense. Realism and suspense appear an oxymoro
nic couple, considering that most real people's lives are not dripping with intrigue that would sell millions of books. In fact, most prosecutors probably do not enjoy the "glamorous" lifestyle, that, although accused of murder, Turow's narrator posses
ses. Presumed Innocent is riddled with plot twists that are pseudo-realistic, lent credibility only because of the author's persistent understanding of legal reality. The reader must assume that since the fundamentals of the novel are easily believed,
the slightly less than believable elements must be accepted as well. The best authors of best-selling fiction provide realistic fantasy; Turow successfully carries his realistic portrayal of the legal system into several unbelievable plot tangents. Amo
ng these plot twists are the love life of Carolyn Polhemus (the murder victim), the loyalty of Sabich's best friend, as well as the novel's "morally ambiguous" dénouement.
Turow's use of Carolyn Polhemus, a seductive prosecutor and the narrator's lover, is to inject sexual intrigue into his courtroom drama. However, Turow not only provides a realistic sexual portrait of Polhemus and Sabich, but takes his temptress a bit
too far past the limits of sexual realism. The sex scenes between Carolyn and Rusty are well written, interesting enough to capture a reader's imagination with the explicit language. "Then, slowly, Carolyn would take control. She liked it rough, and
in time, I would be called upon to slam myself inside her. I stood beside the bed. I dug my hands into her behind and shook her"(110). However, Turow departs from his realism in order to provide suspense; Polhemus' other lovers are revealed as the boo
k progresses. By the end, it is apparent that Carolyn Polhemus, a very busy prosecuting attorney, has slept with four of the novel's main characters. Her love life is a grotesquely fascinating plot twist, hooking readers with the fact that it is so unb
Sabich's best friend, a cop named Lipranzer, provides another suspenseful and unbelievable facet to the novel. Lipranzer is incredibly loyal to Sabich, and yet also a morally upstanding cop. When asked about his dislike of another cop, Keneally, Lipra
nzer disdainfully tells a story of Keneally forcing a prostitute to perform oral sex. Lipranzer ends the story with, "He just ain't my kind of cop"(313), illustrating his own strict code of honor. However, at the book's conclusion, Lipranzer reveals t
hat he has stolen a major piece of evidence from the police in order to protect Sabich. "Crumpled inside a small white box is a manila envelope ribboned with red-and-white evidence tape. I tear through that and find the glass that turned up missing duri
ng the trial, the tumbler from Carolyn's bar"(417). This act, while certainly illegal, is also in conflict with Lipranzer's earlier morality. Readers are amazed by Lipranzer's unflinching loyalty, and luckily Sabich proves worthy of it in his acquitt
al of the murder; Turow's unrealistic portrayal of Lipranzer works simply because Sabich was wrongly accused, causing readers to revel in the risky, and impractical, loyalty of the policeman.
The final and most unrealistic plot development of the book is in its denouement, the novel's climax being when Sabich is acquitted. The end of the novel has Sabich realizing that his own wife, Barbara, murdered Carolyn Polhemus. "Every clever killer
needs an alibi, and Barbara, you might say, had considered a detail or two...And when she turns her head, Barbara serenely bashes it in with a little item called a Whatchamacallit, which is just small enough to fit inside a lady's purse...and then takes
a syringe and injects the contents of her Ziploc bag, full of male fluid"(423). Criticized as morally ambiguous by the Christian Science Monitor (Aug. 13, 1987), this ending, viewed alone without Turow's masterful build-up, lacks credibility. How often
does a female housewife and mother with a math degree go out to bash in the head of her husband's lover, then framing her husband for murder? However, this unlikely act provides the same type of grotesque appeal to the reader as a sensational news stor
y about a serial killer. There is exhilaration in the literary sublime; a person can enjoy the frightening and unbelievable from the safe vantage point of a reader. Presumed Innocent's success lies in Turow's ability to hinge the unreal upon reality,
using his talent as a writer and experience as a lawyer to give basis to his imagination.
The fact that Turow wraps up all the details so carefully, despite his tendency toward the fantastic, also attributes to the novel's popularity. No stone is left unturned, no detail unexplored. The reader feels as though he or she has solved some huge
mystery, or at least witnessed its unraveling. By the end of the novel, there is literally no character left to revisit. Even the rival prosecuting attorney, Nico Della Guardia, is seen again with words of vindication for Sabich. "A year ago, you coul
d've beat me in the election, and you could do it today. Isn't that great?"(414) It is infinitely comforting, despite the chilling realization of the novel's conclusion, to have a realistic mystery totally explained and solved. The protagonist's re
cord is cleared and although his home life is in shambles, there is some indication that even his marriage may be fixed. "One thing led to another and we have, in a sort of half-assed way, been reconciled"(430). Seldomly is everything put to right after
crises in reality; the satisfying justice of Presumed Innocent's world is comforting to the reader. As Nico Della Guardia says, "Nothing has changed"(414).
The publication time of Turow's novel also contributed to its popularity. The Iran Contra Affair was brought to light in November of 1986, just nine months prior to the publication of Presumed Innocent. "In October and November of 1986, two secret U.S
. Government operations were publicly exposed, potentially implicating Reagan Administration officials in illegal activities"(Independent Council Summary Report). Public attention fastened on the testifying of Oliver North before the Senate, placing popu
lar focus on litigious activity. Also, Oliver North attempted to paint a picture of a wrongfully accused underling, a disappointing picture to many observers. This picture is successfully played out in Turow's novel, as well as the overall theme of lit
igious activity. While the Contra hearings were dry Senate hearings, the testimonials of Presumed Innocent are anything but dry, flooded by drama and emotion. While North was merely carrying out orders, Sabich stands up for his own beliefs, going throug
h a murder trial to declare his innocence. Presumed Innocent's timely publication hit at a fortunate moment of frenzied public interest in courtroom drama; though lucky timing, Turow's novel benefited greatly from the events preceding it.
Scott Turow's book Presumed Innocent was a great success, sustaining enough popularity to even spawn a movie in 1990. The book gained this popularity through the author's unique perspective as both lawyer and writer. Through this perspective, Turow w
as able to develop a basis of realism, greatly aided by the fact that he knew his topic intimately. This foundation of reality gave credence to the unbelievable and fantastic plot twists that Turow invented; readers are only too willing to accept the sen
sational when encouraged by a sense of reality. Lastly, the timely publication of Presumed Innocent aided its popularity as it came out on the heels of the Iran Contra revelation. The nation already had its eyes glued to courtroom drama and was very rea
dy to read a book where the protagonist was rightfully vindicated in the end. Presumed Innocent is everything a best-selling novel should be: a well-crafted and timely illusion supported by pervading realism. In the words of Rusty Sabich, "I must have k
nown 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"(431). Presumed Innocent is the grandest kind of illusion. It is a national best-seller.