Book review: Jonathan Yardley on "Innocent," by Scott Turow

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 2, 2010; B08


By Scott Turow

Grand Central. 406 pp. $27.99

We first met Rozat K. "Rusty" Sabich nearly a quarter-century ago in "Presumed Innocent," Scott Turow's estimable and phenomenally successful first novel. It spent a long time on the bestseller list, was made into an equally successful movie (Harrison Ford played Rusty) and went on to a long life in paperback, which is still available. Readers will recall that Rusty was then a deputy prosecuting attorney in a city much like Chicago (where Turow lives and practices law) who was accused of murdering Carolyn Polhemus, an ambitious, unscrupulous colleague with whom he'd had an affair. He was exonerated, but the case left bitter feelings among some in the prosecutor's office, in particular Tommy Molto, who "was sanctioned by the prosecuting attorney's office for deliberately mishandling evidence" against Rusty.

Fast forward a quarter-century. Rusty has revived his career and, after a long stint as a prosecutor, for two decades has been chief judge of the Third District Appellate court of Kindle County, the fictional equivalent of Chicago's Cook County. He has just turned 60 years old and is expected to win a seat on the state's Supreme Court in the November 2008 election. Tommy also has gotten his career back on track. Now in his late 50s, he is the county's acting prosecuting attorney and after a long bachelorhood has happily married. He and Rusty maintain a perfunctory, correct relationship, but they are yoked together in ways that run deep:

"Both had crawled to shore in the aftermath of a personal disaster and resumed their lives. It was actually Rusty, then acting [prosecuting attorney], who'd given Tommy his job back, a silent acknowledgment that all that frame-up stuff was horse-hockey. When the two were together these days, as occurred frequently, they managed a strained cordiality, not only as a matter of professional necessity but perhaps because they had overcome the same cataclysm together. They were like two brothers who would never get along but were scarred and shaped by the same upbringing."

Still, Tommy remains convinced that Rusty murdered his lover and that he had gotten off principally because of Sandy Stern, whose "defense of me," as Rusty remembers it, "was masterful, with every word spoken in court as significant as each note in Mozart." Tommy insists that he has not "carried a long grudge against Sabich" -- "A grudge was a badge of the dishonest, who could not face the truth, including a truth that was unflattering to them" -- but when he is suddenly presented an opportunity to go after Rusty again, even though he is reluctant ("I can't go near this. Too much history"), eventually, goaded by his zealous deputy Jim Brand, he finds himself back on the attack.

Rusty may be a judge, a prominent and respected one, admired by lawyers for the acuity of his mind and the depth of his legal knowledge, feared by defendants for his no-nonsense application of the law, but he is all too human, with powerful appetites and longings. His marriage to the former Barbara Bernstein is difficult. She is severely bipolar, given to sudden mood swings and violent rages. He attempts to humor her and mostly succeeds, but the marriage is held together by little more than their shared desire not to hurt their only child, Nat, now in his late 20s, a handsome and immensely likeable but emotionally delicate young man who spent too much of his youth in psychotherapy.

So though Rusty tells himself that "if I'm not the poster boy for Twice Wise, nobody will ever be," he falls, and falls hard, for Anna Vostic, his senior law clerk, who is about to move into private practice. She is 34 years old, smart, sexy and more than willing, and they begin an ardent affair. As is usually true when such things happen, they try to be discreet but don't try hard enough. "I know at all moments that what I am doing is in every colloquial sense insane," Rusty says. "Powerful middle-aged man, beautiful younger woman. The plot scores zero for originality and is deservedly the object of universal scorn, including my own. . . . I don't need someone else's advice to know this is simply crazy, hedonistic, nihilistic, and that most important 'istic' -- unreal. It must end."

That it does, but the complexities of Rusty's amatory life only intensify. Barbara, in her late 50s, still attractive thanks to her intense exercising, dies in the bed she and Rusty share. He stays in the room with her for fully 24 hours, meticulously arranging the entire scene, not telling anyone what happened or calling 911. When at last the police arrive and an autopsy is done, the initial verdict is hypertensive heart failure. It makes sense: She had a history of high blood pressure, "a family with hearts as fragile as a racehorse's ankles, and had died in her sleep, probably with a fever as the result of a sudden flu. The coroner had recommended a conclusion of death by natural causes, consistent with her known medical history."

That's good enough for Tommy but not for Brand, who keeps pressing and finally gets what he wants: a report from a toxicologist, who says that "the sampling of cardiac blood shows a toxic level of an antidepressant compound called phenelzine," which comes with "a whole list of things you shouldn't eat when you're being treated with [it]. Red wines. Aged cheeses. Beer. Yogurt. Pickled meat or fish. Any kind of dry sausage. They all increase the drug's toxicity"-- and Rusty had bought many of them just before the night of Barbara's death. Soon it develops that Rusty's fingerprints -- and Rusty's alone -- are on the bottle of phenelzine. As circumstantial evidence piles higher and higher, at last Tommy becomes convinced that he has no choice except to indict and prosecute, and egged on by Brand he does this with total commitment.

This gets us just short of the midway point of "Innocent"; the rest of the novel deals with the trial and its aftermath. There are enough surprises in all this to keep the reader's attention fixed -- Turow has always been very good at that -- but as usual in his fiction there's more than skillful legal drama. Turow is a serious man who has thought long and carefully about the law. He understands that in the end it is not really much better than any other mechanism at uncovering absolute truth; that the courtroom is a roll of the dice "where the million daily details of a life suddenly get elevated to evidence of murder"; that life itself is a crapshoot -- "The joke was thinking you were ever really in charge of your life. You pressed your oar down into the water to direct the canoe, but it was the current that shot you through the rapids. You just hung on and hoped not to hit a rock or a whirlpool."

All of which makes for an intelligent, thoughtful novel: a grownup book for grownup readers. It is marred somewhat by the narrative device Turow has chosen. The individual voices of Rusty, Nat and (less frequently) Anna tell Rusty's side of the story, while an omniscient narrator tells Tommy's. This means more or less constant gear-shifting on the reader's part, made all the more puzzling because all the voices sound more or less like . . . Scott Turow. He is always a pleasure to read and sometimes an education as well, but at times here he gets in his own -- and the reader's -- way.

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