Presumed Innocent

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Carolyn Polhemus, a beautiful, highly ambitious lawyer working with the prosecuting attorney’s office in a large Midwestern city, is well loved by her colleagues--too well loved, according to persistent rumors. When she is found strangled in her fashionable apartment, apparently the victim of brutal rape, city officials vow to bring the murderer to justice as quickly as possible. Her boss, Prosecuting Attorney Raymond Horgan, decides that he is too busy campaigning for reelection to become actively involved and turns the case over to his right-hand man, Rusty Sabich, Sabich welcomes the assignment. Six months earlier he had been secretly engaged in a romance with Carolyn; he knows that a routine investigation will uncover his fingerprints throughout the victim’s apartment and find his telephone number in her little black book. Rusty fears that any reminder of his affair will infuriate his moody wife, Barbara, who has already threatened to divorce him. To avoid a confrontation, he decides to suppress any evidence connecting him with Carolyn. Horgan’s political opponents learn of the cover-up, however, and Rusty suddenly finds himself the number-one suspect in the case.

Although Sabich narrates the story, he never offers a convincing alibi, and the reader is not informed about what really happened on the night of the murder. The evidence against him is overwhelming, but, during the course of the trial, it becomes obvious that Rusty was by no means the only city official who Carolyn seduced and compromised. In fact, the more one learns about Carolyn, the more likely it seems that her death may have been simply the unexpected outcome of an evening of kinky sex.

Scott Turow, a lawyer himself and author of the nonfiction best-seller ONE L, demonstrates an easy mastery of several fictional genres in the first novel. PRESUMED INNOCENT combines elements of the police procedural, the courtroom drama, and the psychological thriller; it is filled with memorable characters, believable dialogue, and unexpected twists of plot. In short, this is popular fiction at its very best.

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Turow presents his novel in a typical murder mystery format. Beginning slowly at Carolyn Polhemus's funeral, the story's pace quickens as it...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Since Presumed Innocent is first and foremost a mystery novel, readers should enjoy discussing the many intricacies of both the plot...

(The entire section is 224 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Presumed Innocent, Turow's first published novel, picks up on some of the same concerns as the autobiographical One L (1977)....

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In many respects, Presumed Innocent falls squarely within the ranks of many murder mysteries. Turow is frequently compared to a number...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As in his other works, Turow explores the powers and limitations of the legal system. In all of these books. Turow probes to what extent we...

(The entire section is 144 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Presumed Innocent was brought to the screen in the summer of 1990 in a film directed by Alan J. Pakula and written for the screen by...

(The entire section is 88 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Law’s Labors Lost,” The New Republic, March 14, 1994, 31-38.

Lundy, Derek. Scott Turow: Meeting the Enemy: A Biography. Toronto: ECW Press, 1995.

Macdonald, Andrew. “Personal Injuries.” In Beacham’s Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction. Vol. 13, edited by Kirk H. Beetz. Osprey, Fla.: Beacham’s, 1996.

Macdonald, Andrew, and Gina Macdonald. Scott Turow: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Macdonald, Andrew, and Gina Macdonald. “Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent: Novel and Film—Multifaceted Character Study Versus Tailored Courtroom Drama.” In It’s a Print: Detective Fiction from Page to Screen, edited by William Reynolds and Beth Trembley. Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1994.

Szuberla, Guy. “Paretsky, Turow, and the Importance of Symbolic Ethnicity,” Mid-America: The Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature, 1991, 124-135.