On the multiple layers of revelations built into the best mystery fiction (major SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t read Scott Turow’s novel or seen the Harrison Ford film, and might at some point).
I’ve blogged frequently enough about mystery fiction (and films) to illustrate just how seriously I take the genre as art well worth our analytical time. There are lots of reasons why, but a prominent one would have to be just how much the genre, by its very nature, can teach us about society. That is, the detective’s job, or at least a necessary corollary to his or her job, is to learn about the world around him or her, whether specific (as in Agatha Christie’s town of St. Mary Mead or Ross MacDonald’s California) or broad (as in the mysteries of human nature with which Sherlock Holmes seems so frequently to grapple). And while it’s not impossible for those deductive revelations to include inspiring lessons (about love or courage in the face of threats, for example), the genre’s nature likewise means that most of the time the lessons entail literal falls from innocence, recognitions of the guilt not only in those who commit crimes but (much of the time) in the world as a whole.
I know of few mystery novels that better exemplify those multi-layered, sobering revelations about the world than Scott Turow’s legal thriller Presumed Innocent (1987). Turow’s first-person narrator, prosecutor Rusty Sabich, stands accused of killing the woman with whom he was having an extra-marital affair; the evidence against Rusty is overwhelming, and although he is eventually acquitted, the cause is simply another level of guilt: Rusty and his lawyer discover that the case’s judge has been taking bribes, and use the information as leverage to force an acquittal. Moreover, virtually every other character in the novel is guilty of something significant as well; the cop who first investigates the case, for example, is a longtime friend of Rusty’s and illegally disposes of evidence in an (unsuccessful) attempt to shield Rusty from suspicion. Rusty’s story and world are so choked with guilt, so driven by it from start to finish, in fact, that the title begins to feel less like a legal concept and more like a sardonic social commentary.
Moreover (double SPOILER ALERT for this paragraph!), the novel’s final revelation adds two intimate and even more compelling falls from innocence to the mix. In the closing pages, Rusty discovers evidence that makes clear that the murderer was his wife, who had uncovered the affair, confronted and killed the mistress, and then tried to frame Rusty for the crime instead (going so far as to plant his semen at the scene of the crime). Even on its own terms, this fall from innocence, connected as it is to the woman with whom he has spent his life and has a family, is the novel’s most shocking and damning. But Rusty chooses not to turn his wife in, and the reason is his recognition of the story’s fundamental layer of guilt, its original sin, the fall from innocence that started it all: his affair. Which is to say, the book’s ultimate revelation is that its first-person narrator, its voice and perspective, and (as in almost any first-person book) its most intimate connection to its audience, is the most guilty party of all.
Next fall tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Images of fall, or The Fall, you’d share?
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