Monday, September 30, 2013

"Anatomy of a Murder" by Robert Traver

This is a glorious, slow-simmering novel, a rich and fragrant mixture of mystery, courtroom drama, and character study.  I picked it up at a library book sale years ago because I love the 1959 movie version that stars Jimmy Stewart.  The movie has a much faster pace than the novel, but I think I might prefer the novel.  It's able to delve so deeply into the characters, particularly the protagonist and narrator, attorney Paul "Polly" Biegler.  But even the side characters, like his friend Parnell, get to develop and change throughout the story.

Okay, so here's what happens:  Paul Biegler takes on defending Lt. Frederick Manion, who shot and killed the man who raped his wife, Laura Manion.  There is absolutely no mystery about whether or not Manion killed him -- Manion admits he did, and there were lots of witnesses.  The mystery is whether or not the man actually raped Laura, and whether or not Lt. Manion was legally insane when he shot the man.  And, of course, those two things need to be answered before the jury can reach their verdict.  

I liked several of the characters better in this than in the movie, I have to say.  Laura Manion was a lot more sympathetic here, and so was the judge.  And Mary Pilant, who worked for the murdered man and plays a pivotal role in the movie, is a much different character in this.  Instead of providing a plot twist that pretty well decides the jury's verdict like she does in the movie, she has a much more background role.  And, intriguingly, Paul Biegler takes a fancy to her and starts to hope that after the trial, maybe they could get together.  

But what I really love about this is how it puts me behind the scenes of a trial, showing what a lawyer does, how hinds and uses previous laws and rulings for his defense, how he digs up information and witnesses.  And not in a sensational, thrilling way like in a John Grisham book.  In a methodical, careful way.  Which sounds boring, but it's not.  Not to me, anyway.

Particularly Good Bits:

As I parked my mud-spattered coupe alongside the Miners' State Bank, across from my office over the dime store, I reflected that there were few more forlorn and lonely sounds in the world than the midnight wail of a juke box in a deserted small town, those raucous proclamations of joy and fun where, instead, there dwelt only fatigue and hangover and boredom.  To me the wavering hoot of an owl sounds utterly gay by comparison (p. 3).

"He's a man of few words, yes, but he uses them over and over" (p. 15).

I was getting a little overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of my own modesty and I fought the impulse to flutter my eyelashes (p. 36).

"The law is the busy fireman that puts out society's brush fires; that gives people a nonphysical method to discharge hostile feelings and settle violent differences; that substitutes orderly ritual for the rule of tooth and claw" (p. 63).

In retrospect there was an unreal Alice-In-Wonderland quality about the whole thing, an air of shimmering fantasy, as though we had partaken in some grotesque and unsmiling comedy waveringly enacted at the bottom of the sea (p. 183).

Parnell also stared at the lake.  "The lack of knowledge of people, our lack of human communication, one with the other, may be the big trouble with this old world," Parnell said soberly.  "For lack of it our world seems to be running down and dying -- we now seem fatally bent on communicating only with robot missiles loaded with cargoes of hate and ruin instead of with the human heart and its pent cargo of love" (p. 313).

The tired jurors formed a ragged semicircle across the front of the Judge's bench, a jaggedly fateful half-moon (p. 427).

If this was a movie, I would rate it:  PG-13 for thematic material involving rape and murder, and a surprising amount of swearing.


  1. Nice review! Now I want to read the book, and see if I agree. I've always liked the movie. Sounds like it's very well-written.

    1. Just so you know, it's a chunk. Not quite a brick, but a chunk. Over 500 pages, I think. But on your Kindle, that will seem like nothing, right? I just learned today that it was a #1 bestseller in its day, and I am not at all surprised. You would really dig it, I think.


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