Presumed Innocent, Turow’s first published novel, was an astonishing critical and popular success. In it, he drew upon his own experiences as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Chicago office to draw a detailed and realistic portrait of the world inhabited by his hero, Rusty Sabich, a chief deputy prosecutor in a fictional Midwestern city. The particularity of this world, especially the rendition of the murder trial that is central to the book, accounts in large part for its appeal.
As the novel opens, Sabich’s colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, has just been murdered, apparently after she was raped by someone she knew and trusted. The loss is especially jarring for Sabich, who only a few months before had been the victim’s lover and, in part because his marriage is unsatisfactory, is still in love with her. Her murder is also a shock and an embarrassment to Sabich’s boss, Raymond Horgan, who is up for reelection. Horgan assigns Sabich to investigate the crime; when Sabich fails to uncover the murderer and Horgan consequently loses the election, Horgan conspires to frame his deputy for the murder.
As in many classic mysteries, nearly any of the characters who people Presumed Innocent could have killed Carolyn Polhemus, who was apparently both an unscrupulous colleague and a devotee of danger. The final revelation of the killer has frequently been attacked as contrived. Turow, though, has stated, “We talk about literary truths as implausible, fictitious, and yet there is a way in which the mystery novel delivers a truth real life can’t deliver.” As with all the later Turow novels, the title resonates with meaning: There is no real innocence, only the presumption of innocence, a legal term to be sure, but also an acknowledgment of the ineffability of human motive and thus the impossibility of establishing clear-cut judgments of culpability. In large part, the truth of Presumed Innocent emerges not so much from the trial of Rusty Sabich but from his first-person meditations, which reveal a brooding, philosophical temperament not unlike the author’s. What one reviewer saw as flawed storytelling—the fact that “the novel’s resolution contains a troubling moral ambiguity”—can also be seen as another of Turow’s expert renditions of verisimilitude.