Turow tempers hard-edged attitude in sequel to '87 hit novel

Fiction: "Innocent," by Scott Turow. Grand Central, $27.99.

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From "Presumed Innocent" in 1987 to "Innocent" this year, Rusty Sabich has been tried twice for murder, each time following adulterous affairs that tossed him into hot water. You'd think he would have learned his lesson the first time, but like several high-profile sports figures, Rusty gives in to dangerous impulses because he feels entitled.

His creator, Scott Turow, has also succumbed to the dangerous impulse of writing a sequel to his popular first novel after denying for years -- and eight subsequent novels -- that he would surrender to the temptation. And, once he yielded, the book which emerged is more complex and difficult than its 23-year-old predecessor.

"Innocent" is the work of a 61-year-old hard-edged intellectual who has spent a large part of his professional life in the dog-eat-dog world of the prosecution of public officials in Chicago courtrooms. It is no gentlemen's club, but a sweaty battleground that Mr. Turow has described with no illusions or glamour.

Rusty has risen in the ranks since he was acquitted of murdering his former lover and associate in the district attorney's office of Mr. Turow's mythical Kindle County and is now, at 60, a shoo-in for the state supreme court. However, like so many ambitious hard-working people, Rusty isn't happy.

"I will have gone as far as ambition can propel me," he tells readers. "And I know there will still be a nagging whisper from my heart. It is not enough, the voice will say. Not yet. ... At the heart of my heart, I will still not have the unnameable piece of happiness that has eluded me for sixty years."

From a hard childhood to an even harder marriage, Rusty has learned to ignore his emotions and share little of himself with anyone, including his son, Nat, now a law student. Readers of "Presumed Innocent" can understand why life with wife Barbara offers him little comfort as well.

What we can't understand is why they have stayed together for so long, a pressure-cooker relationship that finally leads to Rusty's steamy hotel-afternoons affair with Anna, another co-worker. While running for the state supreme court. While married to a cunningly intelligent woman who knows how to track the paper trail. And while knowing what that woman is capable of, as revealed in "Presumed Innocent."

Then, long after the affair is over and, in a classic Turow twist, Nat and Anna are lovers, Barbara dies. Rusty's longtime adversary in the DA's office, Tommy Molto, decides he killed her with an overdose of anti-depressants when curious clues emerge.

The courtroom wrangles, a Turow specialty, begin and we settle in for the hand-to-hand combat. In sequel convention, Rusty hires Sandy Stern, lawyer from his first murder case.

Unlike his first legal-battle effort, Mr. Turow's return to the scene of the crime is cloaked in confusing plot details, from drug interactions to computer dating -- of the calendar kind.

He also divides the book into first-person narrative by the main characters, a technique that, while impressive as a novelistic skill, disperses, rather than focuses, the themes of the book.

The one voice that's missing is Barbara's. Described as brilliant, yet deeply troubled, she needs to be heard in her own words to complete the book's world. Her absence casts doubt on the veracity of the other voices we hear.

Mr. Turow's immense talents as a writer, enhanced like few American novelists today by his sharp intelligence and wit, overflow in "Innocent," flooding the impact of the book's payoff.

And, with -- for him -- a warm and fuzzy conclusion, we wonder if he's not getting a little softhearted in his 60s.

Bob Hoover: 412-263-1634 or hoover@post-gazette.com .


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