Monday, December 31, 2012

Procrastination, or Scott Turow 25 Years Later

My bed-side table reading over the last 10 days was Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. Others on this blog must have read this, but if not, I recommend it. The book was published in 1987. So here's a brief 25th anniversary review:

Great book. The story is an engaging who-done-it crime drama, and it is genuinely complex without being contrived. The conclusion in the final chapter was unexpected, but then again, I don't actually know what the conclusion is. There's a "Total Recall"-like quality, or maybe it's more like a Vizzini ("Princess Bride") game theory experiment. ("But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I am not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool, you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me.") We learn what happened, but we also learn that somebody smart enough could know that's what we would think happened so arranged things in order to mislead us, and we are left with the understanding that somebody else smart enough could know that we might suspect somebody smart enough of being so contriving so is misleading us him/herself. And conveniently there are two such smarties appropriately motivated. Who killed Carolyn Polhemus? I don't know.

SAT logic section: Turow is to Grisham as Le Carre is to Ludlum. The beauty of this book is that it is exciting without being fantastical. OK, maybe a little fantastical, because the idea of truly cold-blooded murder is to me inherently fantastical, and defense lawyer Alejandro Stern is a little too perfect. But there's none of this mob law firm or supreme court assassination stuff on which Grisham relies to make an otherwise second rate plot interesting. Presumed Innocent accurately describes small town petty corruption in politics and law enforcement. It accurately describes local court systems, prosecutors' offices, and bar associations. It accurately portrays the trial process in an intimate courtroom where the judges and lawyers know each other and have for decades. Out of that mundanity Turow comes up with a great tale of intrigue.

For a similar reason I like Le Carre. I don't know the intelligence world, but I can imagine that it is less James Bond/Jason Bourne and more data analysis. If you read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and think George Smiley's life is sexy you are either a ditch digger or a law professor -- for nobody else would 20 hours a day of reading documents on a card table in a dingy apartment be a promotion.

Another comparison: Turow reminds me of Eichenwald, the NY Times journalist who wrote an extraordinary series of books into corporate crime and tort over the 1990s. His best known may be The Informant, about the Archer Daniels Midland lysine price-fixing conspiracy, but I prefer the securities books, including Serpent on the Rock and Conspiracy of Fools. Eichenwald is (was?) an investigative journalist, not a novelist, but his real life stories unroll very much like Turow's novel.

There are others I'm now tempted to read. Any comments from the gallery on 1L (I did see the movie years ago) or Innocent (the latter of which the NY Times reviewed highly when it came out in 2011)?

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