Judge and Genre: A Profile of Scott Turow

Kevin Nance

The variety and extremity of dramatic incident in Turow’s books strike many readers and critics, understandably, as his way of fulfilling the conventions of his genre. But just as Turow took for granted the wisdom of “show, don’t tell,” he has also applied that other great mantra of writing programs everywhere: “Write what you know.” What Turow knows is the law and the people who administer it. When he graduated from Harvard Law in 1978—he described his first year there in the memoir One L (Putnam, 1977)—he returned to Chicago as an assistant U.S. attorney, where for eight years he tried cases with a skill and zeal that impressed his colleagues and struck fear into the hearts of opposing counsel throughout the city. But even in the midst of that work, and as disillusioned as he was with the prevailing ethos of literary fiction, Turow was far from done with writing.

Criminality is one of the great expressions of human imagination.

“When One L came out, I knew he was the real deal as a writer, but I used to make fun of him for writing on the train when we were going downtown,” says Chicago attorney Julian Solotorov­sky, who has known Turow for more than thirty years and tried several cases at Turow’s side when they were both young federal prosecutors. “When he was at Stanford, I don’t think Scott studied to write legal thrillers. He studied to write literature. I think what he did was, he became a top-notch trial lawyer, and he saw the opportunity to combine the two. In those days he had a lot going on at once, but he was a driven guy, a hard worker, and he found the time and got it done. And the night he signed the contract for Presumed Innocent, he called me up and gave me all kinds of you-know-what. I had it coming.”

And, as Solotorovsky has reason to know better than most, art has often imitated life in Turow’s novels. Their plots may have struck some critics as overheated genre cliché, but in a real sense, Turow didn’t make this stuff up; in many instances, he lived it. The bribery sting that ensnares several judges for sale in Personal Injuries bears striking resemblances to Operation Greylord, a federal probe into judicial corruption in the mid-1980s, one of whose most celebrated trials was prosecuted by Turow and Solotorovsky. And the death-penalty appeal at the core of Reversible Errors shares a number of characteristics with the real-life case of Alejandro Hernandez, who spent twelve years in the state penitentiary for a murder.

“For years I’d go to court and, like everyone else, I couldn’t get up out of my fucking seat, just because there was a witness on the stand, and I realized that what was gluing people to the seats was the subject itself: crime,” Turow says. “Criminality is one of the great expressions of human imagination. It carries with it the inherent fascination of, ‘How did the criminal get both the courage and the imagination to go beyond the boundaries that I have observed, sometimes with regret?’ It’s so transgressive.”

In Innocent, Turow returns to his most enigmatic and yet most personal character, Rusty Sabich. As readers of Presumed Innocent will recall, Rusty, a Kindle County prosecutor, was tried for the murder of one of his colleagues, Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he was having an extramarital (and obsessive) affair. In Innocent, history repeats itself when Rusty, now chief judge of the state appellate court, has a second affair with a young aide and subsequently finds himself in serious trouble once again. This time he’s accused of murdering his brilliant but mentally unstable wife, Barbara. His defense attorney is again Sandy Stern, and the prosecutor is Tommy Molto, who assisted in Rusty’s first murder trial and now, after marrying and becoming a father late in life, has developed into a considerably more multifaceted and sympathetic figure.

Turow had always resisted writing a sequel to Presumed Innocent, but changed his mind when a story idea he’d scrawled on a sticky note years ago—“a man is sitting on a bed in which the body of the woman lies”—kept haunting him. Who was the woman? How did she get there? “It didn’t take me long to figure out that it was Barbara, and that this was what I had in mind for Rusty Sabich,” Turow says. “But did Rusty actually stay married to this woman? How was that possible? And I realized that Rusty isn’t the first person to stay in a bad marriage.”

This is a pained reference to Turow’s own nearly forty-year marriage to his wife, Annette, which he ended in early 2008, around the same time Rusty, in the developing manuscript, was contemplating a divorce from Barbara. “Rusty’s marriage and my marriage came to an end at about the same time—although in a much different way, of course,” Turow says with a grim smile. “You look back and try to understand why this crap is percolating in the book, and you have no idea at the time. But people do lead their lives this way—they keep making the same mistakes. How can Rusty be doing this again? How can he make the same mistake that almost ruined his life? And the answer is that what lay between then and now was not really worthy of being called life. I think in the end it’s about his unwillingness to accept change. In Presumed Innocent he says repeatedly, ‘I want the life I had before.’ That’s Rusty’s Shakespearean flaw. He wanted the life he had before, and therefore he will make the same mistakes. Out of respect for my kids and my ex-wife, I’m not going to talk about my own divorce, but I will say that my own fear of change had been allayed by that experience. For me, my divorce was a good thing. And it made me approach my publishing relationships with the sense that I had really reinvigorated my life.”

That, in turn, is a reference to Turow’s widely reported decision last year to leave his longtime publisher-editor, FSG’s Jonathan Galassi, for Grand Central, which had held the rights to his backlist for years. “This was just all publishing business,” Turow says now. “Both FSG and Grand Central had let me know for a long time that it was not a good idea to have one house do the hardcover and another do the paperbacks; if one house got two bites at the apple, it would maximize the value of the property. I had not a scintilla of dissatisfaction with Jonathan, but I would be lying if I had to say that I think Farrar, Straus could put a book on the market with the same muscularity that Grand Central can. So I made the change, and now we’ll just have to see what happens.”

Something has to happen. In Turow’s life and work, it always does.

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.