Presumed Innocent

Scott Turow

The Hound's book of the year for 1987 is a superb legal thriller with a killer twist, and the first in Turow's Kindle County series. 

Just as the investigation is getting underway, Horgan discovers the truth about Sabich’s relationship with the victim. Furious at what he sees as a personal betrayal, he pulls Sabich from the case and replaces him with another prosecutor Tommy Molto. Then, evidence begins to turn up that Sabich may have killed Polhemus. In fact, the evidence is compelling enough that Sabich is arrested for the crime. Now he’s suddenly on “the other side.” Sabich engages Alejandro “Sandy” Stern to defend him, and the two begin to dig deeper into the case to find out who the real killer is.

Is he being set up, or is he really guilty? Was Polhemus murdered by one of Horgan’s political enemies, so that he would lose the election? Was she murdered for an intensely personal reason?

This is a legal mystery, so there are court appearances, discussions about what is and isn’t permissible as evidence and lively debate about how best to handle Sabich’s defence. We follow along as Sabich looks at the Polhemus case from a variety of angles, and we get to see how both sides of a legal case work. That aspect of the novel gives it suspense and urgency, especially once Sabich’s freedom is at risk.

And yet, that’s only one aspect of this novel; it’s also got several aspects of the police procedural in it. Readers see how forensic and other evidence points towards one or another person. There are also discussions of interviews with witnesses and suspects and so on. Like police procedurals, the solution to this mystery hinges on hard work, long hours and the slow piecing together of interviews and evidence. That realistic way of depicting the investigation lends authenticity to the mystery. The evidence leads to the solution, and the motive is believable.

There are also interesting character studies in this novel. The character of Carolyn Polhemus, for instance, is revealed slowly as the novel goes on. We see her as a capable and ambitious attorney, a sensuous woman (‘though not what you’d call promiscuous) and a person with a damaged past. And yet, even at the end of the novel, there’s a sense that we never do get to the end of her personality, so to speak.

The story is told in the first person, from Sabich’s point of view. So we learn a lot about his character as well. He, too, has a complicated and not entirely happy past. He understands very well the politics involved in working for a county prosecutor’s office, but isn’t blindly ambitious. He takes his job seriously and is a very talented attorney. It’s obvious that he didn’t become a deputy prosecutor only because he “knew the right people.”

Underlying everything in the novel and woven through it is the politics of prosecuting and defending cases. There’s also a strong element of county and other politics. Cases are often won or lost based on the judge assigned to the case, the attorney one can hire, and so on. And in this case, an election is on the line, and everyone knows that, including Sabich. In fact, one of the things that makes his character complicated is that he plays the political game himself when he has to. And he’s aware that he’s very fortunate as a defendant. He can use his knowledge of the politics involved, whereas many defendants cannot. In a way, this element of politics gives the novel a certain darkness. And yet, it’s realistic. There’s a certain depth to the story that would not be achieved if the politics involved weren’t integrated.

A legal mystery that weaves together elements of the police procedural, courtroom drama and “backroom politics,” Presumed Innocent is also the character study of a strangely compelling victim and an attorney who suddenly finds himself at the center of a very ugly case.

Review by Margot Kinberg, Confessions of a Mystery Writer

About Scott Turow:

Born in Chicago, Illinois, The United States, in 1949.

Scott F. Turow is an American author and a practicing lawyer. Turow has written eight fiction and two nonfiction books, which have been translated into over 20 languages and have sold over 25 million copies. Movies have been based on several of his books.

The novel begins at the funeral of Carolyn Polhemus, a Kindle County prosecuting attorney. Polhemus was murdered, so the police and Kindle County Prosecutor Raymond Horgan are dealing with a full-scale investigation. Horgan is up for re-election, and this time he has a serious opponent, Nico Della Guardia. Horgan wants this case solved quickly and “by the book,” as he hopes it will give him political capital. So he assigns the investigation to his chief deputy prosecutor, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, who has a good reputation as a successful attorney.

Sabich begins the work of finding Polhemus’ killer. What he doesn’t tell Horgan, though, is that he has a very personal stake in this matter; he was involved with Polhemus until just a few months before her murder. The investigation begins, though, and Sabich works with his friend Detective Dan Lipranzer to find out who would have wanted to kill Polhemus and why. As it turns out, Polhemus had a complicated past and a very ambitious outlook. It also turns out that she has a complex personal life, too. In fact, the more we learn about Polhemus the more of an enigma she seems to be.