When your first novel stays on the New York Times Best Seller list for 45 weeks, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll have some reservations about writing a sequel.
Twenty-three years and some 25 million books after his “Presumed Innocent” was released and made into a movie starring Harrison Ford as prosecuting attorney Rusty Sabich, attorney-turned-author Scott Turow felt the heat when he decided to write its sequel, “Innocent.”
“I had enormous fears about writing this book,” Turow said during a telephone conversation from Chicago. “In some ways, it was good because the fears preoccupied me and made me unaware of how deeply invested I was in the book in every other way.”
The success of the book and film overwhelmed Turow.
“I had written four unpublished novels, and ‘One L’ [the author’s account of his first year at Harvard Law School] had come out in 1977 and certainly had been a respectable success as judged by usual standards,” he explained. “My dream had been to be a novelist. The idea of having a novel that was that big was out of body. There were at least two occasions where I really recall thinking that I had just flipped out, and this was all some psychotic fantasy. I’m not kidding.”
Turow’s dream has come true. His books consistently make every best seller list and have been translated into 20 languages. Critics and fans alike credit him with being the father of the legal thriller, paving the way for authors like John Grisham (“The Firm”), Richard North Patterson (“Eyes of a Child”), Steve Martini (“Compelling Evidence”) and Lisa Scottoline (“Look Again”).
Turow, who maintains a criminal law practice with the Chicago office of the firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, is also considered the master of courtroom drama.
“Staying in touch with the milieu is really helpful because that is one thing I know is going to be authentic,” he said. “I don’t have to do research.”
For years, Turow resisted writing a sequel to “Presumed Innocent.” He didn’t think it was a good idea to compete with himself.
“I was at a point of deep introspection in my own life,” Turow explained. “My last kid had gone off to college. I was charging up to 60 [years old] like Rusty. It didn’t really matter what I said I was going to do.”
Turow jotted down the idea for a book on a Post-It note and put it on his desk.
“The note said, ‘A man sits on a bed. The body of a woman is beneath the covers,” Turow explained. “One day, I realized that the man was Rusty and it [the story] just took over.”
“Innocent” picks up Sabich’s story some 22 years later.
Sabich, who was cleared of murdering former lover and fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus, is now chief appellate judge in Turow’s fictional Kindle County. He’s considering a run for the state supreme court and is still married to the brilliant math professor and computer whiz Barbara, who battles mental illness. Their son Nat, about to graduate from law school, is having a hard time finding his place in the world.
Sabich’s nightmare begins when he wakes up and finds Barbara dead. To all the world, it seems his wife has died in her sleep of a heart attack, as her father did.
To prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto, however, the fact that Sabich waited 24 hours to report Barbara’s death, the way she died is suspect. Molto, still stinging from losing the case against Sabich years ago, and his snake of an assistant set about to prove that Barbara’s death was intentional and that Sabich is the one responsible.
Turow develops the plot by using several points of view and timelines. He also brought back the indomitable Sandy Stern, who once again uses his impressive legal skills to defend Sabich when he is charged with his wife’s murder. Stern’s return to the action was not a given.
“I can remember sitting down at breakfast with John Grisham in 2007,” Turow recalled. “He asked me if Sandy was going to be in the book. I told him I wasn’t sure and he said, ‘Oh, you gotta bring back Sandy Stern.”
Turow originally planned to use Stern’s point of view to tell the story, but the characters in “Innocent” weren’t having any of that.
“My initial impulse was that everything related to the investigation was going to come through Rusty’s lawyer,” Turow said. “That wasn’t going to work. I got up one morning and thought maybe I need to write from the prosecuting attorney’s point of view. It just came to me. Everything came spilling out. It was third person, past tense. At that point, I realized I was writing a book from multiple points of view.”
While some readers might find the back and forth a little distracting at first, the plot really is enriched by having all the characters tell their side of the story. The different voices help resolve thorny questions, like why did Sabich have an affair with his former law clerk – and after the affair is over, why does she take up with Sabich’s son? By letting his readers feel each character’s passion, conflict and guilt, they get to decide for themselves how they feel about the affair.
So, what makes Sabich step over the line – again?
“I’m not the final authority. That rests with the reader,” Turow answered. “But I see Rusty as somebody who basically lived his life in the traumatic aftermath of the [first] trial. He says repeatedly that he wants his life back.”
But, after his life comes back together when he reconcilies with his wife, develops a closer relationship with his son and has a chance to reach the pinnacle of his professional life, Turow says, “this is really not what he wanted after all.”
“He’s unwritten history and is confronting the fact that he cannot find an unnamable piece of happiness,” the author said. “He’s exactly where he was when he fell for Carolyn Polhemus.”
While there’s no disputing that “Innocent” is Sabich’s story, Kindle County Prosecuting Attorney Tommy Molto occupies a considerable part of the plot, which is natural, considering he’s the one who brings charges against Sabich and has to take the case to trial.
What is unexpected, however, is Molto’s touching back story. He comes from a working class, Catholic background. He’s a journeyman prosecutor. Much to his surprise, he’s found true love late in life, is a father and his young wife is expecting another. While most readers will pull for Sabich, there’s something very endearing about Molto.
“A friend of mine said, ‘I think Tommy Molto might be the most decent man you’ve ever written,’” Turow said. “I’m not sure I agree with that, but he certainly is one of those people who has grown with age.”
Molto proves his worth at the end of the book when he makes a decision to do the right thing. A lesser man would have let sleeping dogs lie.
“He ultimately starts thinking no matter how complex these things might have seemed to him years ago, when you’re a father, that changes it all,” Turow said. “You know where you must stand in order to teach the children well.”
As “Innocent” collects favorable reviews from readers and critics, Turow is glad he faced his fears and wrote the book.
“I can look back now and realize that if it had not gone well, I probably would have been crushed,” he said with a laugh. “But mostly because the book means so much to me, it’s all worked out, so it looks like it was a great idea.”
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