The Burden of Proof

In 1987, Chicago-based attorney Scott Turow published Presumed Innocent, a suspenseful murder mystery that offered an insider’s view of the workings of the legal system. The book was both critically well-received and a highly successful best-seller—a remarkable accomplishment for a new writer with only one other book to his credit. The Burden of Proof is Turow’s follow-up to Presumed Innocent and, like its predecessor, it quickly achieved best-seller status.

Although The Burden of Proof is not actually a sequel to Presumed Innocent—their stories are unrelated—one of the earlier book’s important secondary characters, Alejandro Stern, takes center stage here. Stern’s role in Presumed Innocent was that of defense attorney for Rusty Sabich, the book’s narrator and central character who had been accused of the murder of a female colleague. In The Burden of Proof several years have passed and Stern’s practice continues to thrive. One of his important clients is his brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell, founder of the Maison Dixon investment firm. As the novel opens, Stern returns home from a consultation with Hartnell in Chicago to find that Clara, his wife of thirty-one years, has committed suicide. Stern must now cope with both Hartnell’s legal problems and his wife’s death, and the book focuses on his efforts to put his personal life back together while he sorts his way through his brother-in-law’s possible financial wrongdoings.

In many ways, Turow seems to have made a concerted effort with this novel to avoid imitating Presumed Innocent. The plot of the earlier book took the form of a murder mystery; The Burden of Proof offers no victims and no killers. Presumed Innocent was narrated in the first person by Rusty Sabich; here the action is presented from Stern’s point of view, but in the third person. Perhaps the most dramatic difference between the two books, however, lies in the characterization of each book’s central figure. Rusty Sabich knows the truth behind the crime he is investigating—indeed, he may even have committed it—and he doles out his knowledge gradually to the reader. Sandy Stern, on the other hand, knows only as much as the reader knows and is one of the few characters in the novel who is above suspicion.

It is this last point that makes The Burden of Proof although entertaining, a less compelling and original book than its predecessor. Turow again makes use of plot twists and surprises throughout, but no event in the story is as dramatic or as startling as the device of a narrator who is himself suspected of the crime. Yet if the book lacks the page-turning intensity of Presumed Innocent, it still offers an intriguing mystery and a well-developed set of characters, most of whom eventually play a crucial part in the unfolding saga of the story’s complicated financial scheme.

From the moment of the book’s shocking opening scene, Sandy Stern finds himself thrust unwillingly into a new life. The loss of his wife forces Stern to reassess their marriage and his own role as a sometimes-preoccupied husband who failed to notice the signs that Clara had been slipping into an increasing mood of despair for many years. An unpaid medical bill leads him to the astonishing discovery that Clara—always a proper and dignified woman—had at some point in their marriage contracted herpes through an extramarital affair. It is a revelation made all the more painful for Stern given the unexpected sexual reawakening he experiences as a widower and his concern that he, in turn, might have contracted the disease from his wife.

Stern’s newfound delight in other women and the three relationships he tentatively begins in the wake of Clara’s death are among the novel’s best segments. The women themselves comprise a wide-ranging assortment of personalities. Helen Dudak, an old family friend now divorced from her husband, arrives bearing food, soon becoming Stern’s frequent companion and then his lover. Margy Allison, Dixon Hartnell’s top executive and one-time mistress, is an outspoken Southerner whose tart tongue masks a surprising degree of emotional vulnerability. Sonia Klonsky, married, pregnant, and Stern’s legal opponent, inspires an intense romantic response in the bewildered attorney—a mid-life version of a schoolboy crush—that blurs the line between his personal and professional lives.

The blurring of that line becomes one of The Burden of Proof’s central themes as its story progresses. Stern’s son, Peter; a successful doctor who has always been at odds with his father, knows far more about his mother’s private life than Stern had imagined, while Stem’s daughter, Marta, always restless and introspective, proves herself a valuable asset when her father requires a skillful attorney. As Stern attempts to stave off what appears to be the...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)

Literary Techniques

Turow's plotting technique is basically the same as in Presumed Innocent. Although the novel seems to be written in retrospect...

(The entire section is 196 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

The focus of The Burden of Proof is on a mystery; yet this novel deals even more explicitly with the personal and emotional...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

Social Concerns

While The Burden of Proof maintains the interest in law demonstrated in Turow's two earlier works, the novel's primary emphasis is on...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Literary Precedents

At one point, late in the novel, Stern sees that "The walls were closing in on Dixon, as on some Poe character. . . ." In its revelation of...

(The entire section is 125 words.)

Related Titles

The Burden of Proof is intimately connected to Presumed Innocent. Not only are Stern and his wife Clara part of the earlier...

(The entire section is 254 words.)


In February 1992, Scott Turow's The Burden of Proof was broadcast as a two part television mini-series on ABC. The cast featured...

(The entire section is 54 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

America. CLXIII, October 13, 1990, p.250.

Chicago Tribune. June 3, 1990, XIV, p.1.

Dalton, Katherine. “Power of Attorney.” Harper’s Bazaar 123 (June, 1990): 38-39. Briefly reviews the novel, comparing it with Presumed Innocent. Chiefly rehearses Turow’s biography, emphasizing the phenomenal success of Turow’s first novel.

Diggs, Terry K. “Through a Glass Darkly: John Grisham and Scott Turow Lay Down the Law for Millions of Americans. Just What Is It They’re Trying to Tell Us?” ABA Journal 82 (October, 1996): 72-75. Diggs argues that Grisham...

(The entire section is 369 words.)