The Burden of Proof
When your first novel is Presumed Innocent, what do you do for an encore? A No. 1 best-seller in hardcover and paperback, Scott Turow’s fiction debut was more than just a commercial success. Reviewers scrambled for fresh superlatives to distinguish this Big Book from all the others, to describe its literate, mesmerizing blend of whodunit, corruption exposé, and courtroom drama. Even more important, here was one critic-approved best-seller that was actually read, start to finish, by just about everyone who bought it. Word of mouth, independent of hype, made Presumed Innocent into the mega-novel of 1987. And the movie version — sure to stimulate new paperback sales when it is released in July — will star Harrison Ford as Rusty Sabich, the prosecutor who becomes chief suspect (and reluctant chief sleuth) in the murder of a femme fatale colleague.
So expectations are running unusually high for The Burden of Proof, especially since at first glance Turow seems to be promising more of the same. For his title he has chosen another halls-of-justice catchphrase that quivers with Perry Masonic theatricality. Like Presumed Innocent, this second novel is a hefty, faintly presumptuous item, weighing in at 515 pages. Furthermore, a memorable character from the first novel, Alejandro (”Sandy”) Stern, the middle-aged super-lawyer who defends Rusty Sabich, resurfaces in The Burden of Proof, promoted from supporting player to grand-scale hero.
Readers hoping for a sequel, however, are going to be disappointed. Likewise those eagerly waiting to devour another epic murder mystery or another ercely dramatic trial by jury. The Burden of Proof features no murder, no trial, none of the surefire thriller devices that helped to make Presumed Innocent such a commanding piece of storytelling.
At first, in fact, Turow appears to have forsaken suspense entirely. The book begins as Sandy Stern, celebrated attorney in an unnamed, midsize Midwestern city, returns home from a business trip to find the body of his wife, Clara, behind the wheel of their garaged black Cadillac Seville. There isn’t, and never will be, any doubt that Clara herself turned on the ignition in the closed garage, after leaving Stern a minimalist suicide note (”Can you forgive me?”). There’s no lurking suspicion, as there would be in any self- respecting formula thriller, that this open-and-shut case of self- asphyxiation might really be a cleverly camou aged murder. Instead, the opening chapters here hunker down with Sandy Stern’s grief and bewilderment as he numbly goes through the motions, offers what solace he can to his three grown children, and fumbles his way — after 31 years as a complacently married man — into the isolation of widowerhood.
Unfortunately, as Turow fans may recall, earnest introspection is not exactly the author’s forte. Indeed, the only pages of Presumed Innocent that didn’t quite work were Rusty Sabich’s long-winded meditations on his early-mid-life angst. And the interior churnings of Sandy Stern — ”Oh, Clara, Clara, what did I do?” — so dominant in the early sections of The Burden of Proof are only occasionally more compelling. At their worst, Stern’s ruminations have the almost embarrassing banality of soap opera. At their best, they suggest that Turow is striving to bring off a tragicomic character study in the ironic, juicy manner of his fellow Chicagoan Saul Bellow.
Stern, a 1947 émigré from Argentina, reflects on his polyglot identity. He recalls his awkward courtship of Clara (the boss’ daughter, more or less) as, in the weeks after her death, he finds himself an unlikely, portly sex object for women of a certain age. Like so many other middle-aged heros, he even falls victim to a giddy teenager-like infatuation.
And though Turow works hard to make these familiar moves distinctive (the ”younger woman” whom Stern swoons over, for instance, is 41, married, pregnant, and scarred by cancer), his psychological close-up of Sandy Stern remains stubbornly generic and only half-convincing.
So, after a few chapters of The Burden of Proof, a lot of readers may be inclined to toss this problematic novel aside, figuring that Turow has overreached in the wrong direction and lost touch with his talent.
Those who persevere, however, will be rewarded — and reassured that Presumed Innocent was no fluke. Because, eventually, two genuinely absorbing, cleverly developed suspense plots do emerge here. Their actual story lines are hinted at, built in, right from the start, but not until the novel’s second half do they lift away from the more routine ”literary” material (the brooding, the flashbacks, the sexual hijinks) and begin generating real momentum.
Why did Clara commit suicide? That question, initially a rather soggy one, firms up considerably once Stern learns that before her death his independently wealthy wife withdrew $850,000 from her investment account in the form of a certified check — which hasn’t been seen (or cashed) since. At the same time, he pokes almost idly into another nagging mystery about Clara’s last weeks: What unspecified medical test did she have at a local laboratory? The totally unexpected answer — that 58-year-old Clara had tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease — transforms Stern the mourner into Stern the vengeful cuckold, determined to identify the source of his late wife’s infection. . .and, not so incidentally, the whereabouts of that $850,000.
Stern the lawyer, meanwhile, gets handed a case that is merely annoying at first, then mildly worrisome, and quickly turns into an ethical and tactical nightmare. The client: his swaggering brother-in-law, brokerage tycoon Dixon Hartnell, an unfaithful (but adored) husband to Stern’s childless sister, Silvia. The problem: Local federal prosecutors are convinced that Dixon has been ”trading ahead,” using advance information about his customers’ biggest buys and sells to make himself a small extra profit now and then. The wrinkle: Key witness John Granum, the junior clerk at Dixon’s firm who apparently placed the shady orders, also happens to be Stern’s good-looking but otherwise unprepossessing son-in-law. Add in a nasty puzzle — who’s the secret government informant inside Dixon’s company? — and Stern is soon succumbing to a rare bout of ”lawyer’s terror,” not knowing how much his adversary knows or (since Dixon is evasive) how guilty his client really is.
Not only do these two side-by-side plots give the second half of The Burden of Proof a desperately needed shift into higher gear, they also allow Turow an opportunity to show his gift for filling out the bare bones of suspense storytelling with tantalizing details and darkly comic situations. The federal investigation involves the curious ins and outs of grand-jury subpoenas, deposition strategy, and brokerage-house accounting. It involves the trickiest aspects of the lawyer-client relationship, too — especially when Dixon stashes a safe full of incriminating documents in Stern’s office for months, then surreptitiously removes them. And Stern’s grim discoveries about Clara lead to equally provocative and near-farcical complications, including the marvelously uncomfortable scene in which Stern is examined for signs of herpes by his son, the doctor.
Best of all, Turow ultimately brings these two quite separate suspense stories together in an immensely satisfying grand finale of revelations. Like the best of Agatha Christie’s unnerving wrap-ups, this one is full of twists but elegantly simple as well, with the book’s true architecture — always there, yet never seen from quite the right angle — becoming clear at long last.
Finally, then, Scott Turow the second novelist registers as a writer with a split personality, one part aspiring to ”bigger things” than suspense fiction, the other quite happily — and inventively — practicing the craft that was on such unambivalent display in Presumed Innocent. Next time, maybe, Turow will place greater trust in his tremendous natural gifts. Meanwhile, readers hungry for glimmers of his storytelling brilliance will have to wait out the slow, gassy preliminaries of The Burden of Proof.