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Onyx reviews: Innocent by Scott Turow

Some twenty years ago, lawyer Rusty Sabich was accused of killing his colleague and lover, Carolyn Polhemus. Rusty is now sixty years old and a judge on the appellate court. He's still with his wife Barbara, although they separated briefly after he was absolved of the murder. Their life together hasn't been easy. Barbara is a Ph. D. mathematician with bipolar disorder. She takes a pharmacy's worth of drugs to maintain her mood.

Without consulting his wife, Rusty decides to run for the state supreme court. Before the election takes place, Rusty discovers Barbara dead in bed. Inexplicably, he waits twenty-four hours before telling anyone. This delay, which may have allowed evidence of murder to dissipate, sets off warning bells in the Prosecuting Attorney's office—the realm of Tommy Molto, the acting PA, and his gung-ho assistant, Jim Brand. Though Brand is determined to vindicate his mentor and friend, Molto knows that if he acts prematurely, he will be accused of sour grapes after failing in his prosecution of Rusty two decaders earlier. 

This time Molto wants to make sure every i is dotted before he proceeds against Rusty. His biggest problem is that there isn't convincing evidence that Barbara was murdered. He decides to re-test the evidence from the Polhemus case using modern DNA technology. If he can demonstrate that Rusty really was guilty of the earlier crime, his case will be stronger. To avoid any appearance of political motivation behind his prosecution, he decides to wait until after the election before showing his hand.

The first half of the novel jumps between Rusty's 60th birthday in 2007, Barbara's death in September 2008 and the election two months later. Rusty commits two indiscretions in 2007 that, once discovered, add fuel to Molto's developing case—another affair and the disclosure of privileged information to someone whose case he was hearing. The affair complicates events in the book's second half, bringing to mind a Greek tragedy.

The rest of the book covers the eventual murder trial, starting with the defense's case. Since readers are already privy to the evidence the prosecution gathered against Rusty, this is an expedient way to get to the heart of the story. Rusty testifies first, which is unusual. His lawyer, the smooth and savvy Sandy Stern who defended Rusty before, wants to have the opportunity to recover if Molto inflicts damage during cross examination. 

In Innocent, Turow has pulled off an amazing feat: He has written a sequel to a novel with a famous twist ending without giving away the first book's secret. Rusty alludes to truth of that case in passing a few times, but people who have never read Presumed Innocent will reach the end of Innocent without ever knowing the truth behind Carolyn Polhemus's murder. People familiar with the earlier novel will have an extra level of appreciation for the significance of many of the book's events.

Turow has also done a very good job of allowing his characters to age and evolve in the intervening years. Rusty is the most unchanged by time. He's weathered the storm of his tumultuous relationship, he has risen in his profession, but he hasn't really learned much and is still making many of the same mistakes that got him into trouble before. His son, Nat, who was only briefly seen in Presumed Innocent before being shipped off to summer camp to shield him from the trial and its attendant publicity, is now trying to find his way in life and in love, debating whether to practice law or teach it. Tommy Molto is perhaps the character who has benefitted the most from the passage of time. Recently married, he's a new father at sixty who is far more self assured and even tempered than the younger version of himself in Presumed Innocent

Innocent is a thoughtfully constructed novel. The ping-ponging multiple-viewpoint structure of the first half builds the case for the prosecution. Readers first see the important acts and then watch as they are uncovered in the subsequent investigation. Among the viewpoint characters are Rusty, Tommy Molto, Nat, and Anna Vostic (Rusty's clerk). Once the pieces are all in place, it's a full court press through the exciting trial, featuring an amusing judge whose spoken English is poor, and a defense attorney fighting lung cancer. The momentum of the case ebbs and flows as new information is uncovered. One moment the situation seems dire—the next, it seems like Rusty will be completely in the clear. The trial is full of twists and turns that shift the balance back and forth every few chapters. It is a thrilling joyride and watching two lawyers at the tops of their games is entertainment at its best.

Turow pushes the reversals to the extreme in an effort to make everyone happy and have all of his beloved characters save face, but this is a minor complaint about a book that is so exquisitely conceived and executed.

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