|Posted by Vladimir Mortsgna on August 13, 2016 at 9:55 PM|
#7: Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. We have reached the point in the Top 20 where the greatness of the books in question can not longer be explained without spoilers. Presumed Innocent is extremely well written and well plotted, and it is full of realistic detail about the criminal justice system. But what makes it Top 10 material can not be separated from what is special about the ending. So...heed my warning. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT READ PRESUMED INNOCENT - MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Incidentally, also a very fine movie. There are a few Top 20 books above this that had good solid adaptations, as well as one that left me a little cold and one that was a debacle. But Presumed Innocent is one of the greatest movie adaptations of a great mystery of all time - probably only The Maltese Falcon exceeds it. Doesn't hurt that it starred Harrison Ford. John Spencer, Raul Julia, Anne Archer and Paul Warfield are an outstanding supporting cast. As far as I can tell, Harrison Ford has never been in a bad mystery. Witness, the Fugitive, Presumed Innocent - all outstanding. What Lies Beneath - quite good. Let's not talk about his comedies.
OK, I stalled an additional paragraph. Abandon this entry, if you haven't read the book, because I must now go into what is great about it, which is best experienced as the author intended. Of course, if you have had the privilege of reading it, you know where I am going.
In addition to a compelling legal drama and a fiendish mystery, Presumed Innocent is quite simply one of the deepest most thoughtful explorations of the moral concept of guilt that one can read. Rusty Sabich, a top attorney, is cheating on his mathematician wife and his mistress is murdered. In addition to motive, Rusty's innocence is called into question by several items of physical evidence, including his semen in the victim and a drinking glass in her apartment with his fingerprints. The prosecutor trying the case has it out for him. Rusty loudly protests his innocence, but the reader is not really sure - nothing has been shared with the reader that places Rusty anywhere else the night of the murder.
But the tide begins to turn, though not (at least not immediately) in the way the reader has been conditioned to expect. This isn't a Perry Mason mystery or even "Suspect" (also a fine fine courtoom drama, the one with Cher, Dennis Quaid, Liam Neeson and John Mahoney, but slightly more conventional). The accused doesn't clear his name by successfully finding the real killer. He just starts to have better luck. The fingerprinted glass disappears. The coroner who handled the semen evidence blundered and missed a crucial fact. Then the judge unexpectedly ends the case before the defense even begins, due to lack of evidence. Rusty is off the hook.
Rusty discovers however, to his horror (or at least, to my horror), that most of these turns of good fortune were not accidental. His best friend in the court system hid the drinking glass - it had been delivered to him accidentally and he did not volunteer its whereabouts. He learns that his defense attorney used some dirt he had on the judge to convince the judge to rule in his client's favor. But it is clear that both allies acted out of loyalty - neither one believed he was innocent. He becomes the embodiment of that hated archetype - the defendant who is cleared on technicalities. And his friends acted knowingly to clear him even though they believed him to be guilty. In effect, he will always be guilty in their eyes forever, and since the court system cleared him, their opinions of him can never be cleared. If he is telling the truth, he is the innocent man who will always be thought guilty.
Then, the even deeper, more Artistotelian moral twist. The first time the reader (at least, this reader) is finally sure that Rusty did not kill the victim is at the end of the book when he accidentally discovers more incriminating evidence - in his own home. His wife admits that she murdered his mistress and planted everything, from the glass to the DNA evidence, to frame him and thus punish both adulterers. So now we are again confronted with a dilemma: Is Rusty innocent or not? He did not murder his mistress but the murder would never have taken place without the sins of which he was unquestionably guilty.
One last amazing thing about this amazing book. Rarely has a great book so richly lived up to its title. Some great mysteries have titles that are poetic (The Big Sleep) and some are just really direct (The Spy who came in from the Cold; The Maltese Falcon). Two of the books to come in the Top 6 have titles that I still can't figure out. But Presumed Innocent is a dissertation in fiction on the nature of (and the possibility of) innocence...
Categories: Vladimir's Top 20 Mysteries