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Originally published Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Book review

'Innocent': Scott Turow's sequel to 'Presumed Innocent'

A review of Scott Turow's sequel to "Presumed Innocent." The new novel, "Innocent," is flawed but gripping.

Special to The Seattle Times

'Innocent'

by Scott Turow

Grand Central, 407 pp., $27.99

Twenty-three years ago, Scott Turow published the runaway best-seller "Presumed Innocent," a courtroom drama featuring a plot that was clever, chilling and wildly unpredictable. Although he has published several novels since, Turow has never re-created the impact, creativity or depth of his first novel.

Turow's new thriller, "Innocent" (in bookstores Tuesday), is a sequel to "Presumed Innocent,"set 20 years after the original. Rusty Sabich, the young prosecutor wrongly accused of murder in the first novel, is now 60 years old and the chief judge of the court of appeals. When Sabich's wife dies suddenly, county prosecutor Tommy Molto is instantly on alert. Molto aggressively prosecuted Sabich in the first novel and suffered a humiliating defeat. But age has made Molto cautious. Only when a quiet investigation pushed by his hotheaded colleague Jimmy Brand implicates Sabich does Molto indict Sabich for murder.

Sabich, of course, retains Sandy Stern, his soft-spoken lawyer from the first novel. Stern, too, has aged and is struggling with lung cancer and its treatment. Assisted by his daughter and law partner Marta, Stern wheezes from his courtroom efforts and holds on to a table for support during the trial.

Sabich had an affair with the victim in the first novel that complicated not only his criminal defense but his marriage as well. Disappointingly, Sabich veers into another affair, this time with one of his young law clerks, Anna Vostic. It is, of course, not a convenient fact for an older man with a dead wife.

Turow's writing is thoughtful but something is missing. "Presumed Innocent" featured characters so carefully drawn you knew them and understood their actions. Here, Turow glosses over the detail and the novel suffers for it as you scratch your head and wonder at the motivation for unlikely developments.

Perhaps older men are just inherently vulnerable to beautiful young women, but it is difficult not to groan when Sabich succumbs to one of his law clerks. Remember, this is the guy who underwent a highly public ordeal in the first novel and is now on the court of appeals, with a son the same age as the law clerk and a wife still suffering from his first affair. People can be foolish, but this seems simply improbable. Sabich is too easily seduced, too careless, too cavalier.

And Sabich reveals the outcome of an appeal to a criminal defendant. The suggestion that a judge would so carelessly reveal such a confidence is, again, simply difficult to accept. It would be a horrific violation of judicial obligations, and Turow doesn't offer any plausible explanation for it.

As a result, one is left struggling to understand or empathize with Sabich. Indeed, Molto — the first novel's young firebrand who has mellowed with age, a late marriage and a young son — is more sympathetic here, almost flipping the team you cheer for. Perhaps that's Turow's larger lesson: that time leavens everything and that innocence is relative.

Turow's writing is at its best in the courtroom, with searing cross examinations, surprising revelations and dramatic plot twists. Of course nothing is what it seems and — no secrets revealed here — this trial is far from a mere rematch. Only when the last page is turned do all the pieces finally fall into place with a soft and entirely unpredictable click.

Even with its flaws, "Innocent" is terrific and Turow remains by far the best courtroom novelist of our time, shaming the far more prolific and predictable John Grisham. This was a book worth waiting for.

Kevin J. Hamilton is a Seattle lawyer.

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