How crime writer Scott Turow invented the modern courtroom thriller
Harrison Ford remembers the Indiana Jones fight scene in 1990
Combining the complexities of legal maneuvering with court proceedings and murder, Turow saw the genre explode on page and screen, with American writers Grisham, David Baldacci and Michael Connelly following in his footsteps. And, in the UK, authors like Steve Cavanagh, Tony Kent and Abi Silver followed.
A dozen best-selling novels later, many made into movies and TV series, Turow returns with a gripping new crime thriller, Suspect. It launches as Apple TV is remaking Presumed Innocent into a new long-form TV series from TV super-producers David E Kelley and JJ Abrams, set to start filming in January for release next year.
“I guess proof of the fact that you’re getting old is when you’re alive to see the new version,” says the 73-year-old Turow. [Harrison Ford role] Rusty, I’m sorry I can’t say who, and after seeing the scripts, I can say that even I was surprised by the ending.
“David E. Kelley has done a truly remarkable job of preserving the spirit of my book, while adding many new surprises.”
Turow’s latest novel, Suspect, has also been bought by Kelley, who created television series including Chicago Hope and The Practice. The novel stars Clarice “Pinky” Granum, a rebellious private investigator with a nail through her nose and indifferent to the rules.
“Legal thrillers aren’t as big a movie as they were in the ’80s and ’90s,” admits Turow. “When was the last court movie? Hollywood says the courtroom is now the domain of television.”
Turow is not like some novelists who churn out dozens of books a year as if on a production line. “If you compare me to James Patterson, I’m way behind,” he says of the author of more than 400 novels.
Juggling his career as a defense attorney with his writing, Turow has written just 12 novels in the past three decades, including The Burden Of Proof and Pleading Guilty, but all have won literary plaudits and popular acclaim, selling more than 30 million copies. . worldwide and being translated into more than 40 languages.
It opened the floodgates of the so-called “legal thriller”, but admits: “That term made me sick for years because it seemed like a simplistic way of summarizing my writing. I didn’t invent the judicial novel: there was To Kill a Mockingbird, and you can go back to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. But seeing the nuts and bolts of a lawyer’s life in court and out of it: that was new.”
The Harvard-educated Turow worked as a prosecutor in Chicago and spent eight years creating Presumed Innocent, writing in 30-minute bursts on the commuter train to and from work. The thriller sparked a bidding war between publishers and movie studios, with a net deal of $3 million before the novel hit bookstores.
However, he had feared that it would be a failure.
“I was just trying to write about what I knew, but I was worried that it would be too psychological for the mystery audience and that the literary crowd would reject it,” he says. “Instead, he was hugged from both sides. I can still write pretty much anywhere, in any room or on the road,” he says from his 105-year-old colonial-style home in suburban Chicago. “I’m going to take a flight home to Florida and I already know what I’m going to write on the plane.”
But creating a novel is not pure joy.
“Some authors love to rewrite: I’m not one of them,” he admits.
“The task of reducing paragraphs or filling in a character you may have missed can seem like a bit of a chore, even if it’s an important part of the process.”
Unlike other lawyers turned novelists, Turow continued to practice as a criminal defense attorney.
“After I sold my first novel, my publisher said to me, ‘Promise me you’re not going to be one of those people who throws away the life they have for a sudden success.’ It seemed like good advice to me, so I always wrote my novels while practicing law.”
He eventually retired from court work in 2020, although he still has two pro bono cases pending.
“After retiring from law, I admit this last book was written much faster,” he says. “I am working on my next book, but I work slowly. I know Stephen King a little bit, and I sat next to him and listened to the fountain of ideas that flow from him relentlessly: he really is a genius. I don’t have that ability.”
One of Turow’s proudest achievements is not a book, but the legal case he won showing that death row inmate Alejandro Hernandez had been wrongfully convicted of murder, securing his release in 1995 after 11 years behind bars.
“It was a deeply disturbing and horrifying story,” says Turow.
“Another inmate admitted to the murder, but prosecutors refused to release Hernandez until DNA evidence finally proved the real killer.”
Turow went on to serve on a death penalty commission that saw Illinois Governor George Ryan commute the sentence of every prisoner on death row in the state. “The problem with overturning a death row conviction is that everyone in the penitentiary wants you to do that same magic for them, whether they’re guilty or not,” laughs Turow. “I’m still buried in prison mail.
“My literary career has also earned me a couple of stalkers, paranoid schizophrenics who wanted my help to combat conspiracies against them.
“There was a woman who went to my office, to my ex-wife’s house, to my law firm, and she also hung around the neighborhood. She was scary, she made threats.”
On another occasion he was chased through dark streets by a criminal he was prosecuting, and he confesses: “I was terrified. I assumed he was armed. I should have known that if you kill a prosecutor, another one just comes along to replace him, but that didn’t make me feel any better about it.”
Illinois Governor George Ryan
Turow has also written three nonfiction books, including Ultimate Punishment, which describes his own struggles with the death penalty.
While working on his next thriller, the author is also considering other projects. “I promised my son a few years ago that I would write a science fiction novel: I haven’t done it yet. And I wrote the first draft of a young adult novel. My agent said, ‘Have you read a lot of YA literature?’ And I confessed that I didn’t. She said, ‘I think you should read some more!’”
His personal life naturally influences his writing. Turow divorced the mother of his three children in 2008 and married his current wife, Adriane, in 2016, which perhaps explains the cynicism about relationships found in his writing.
“I try to give the two women I’ve married the privacy they deserve,” he says. “But my second marriage is very, very happy, although I have come to the conclusion that marriage is unique among relationships. They say a second marriage is a triumph of hope over experience.”
A lifetime as a lawyer and crime writer has also tainted his view of humanity.
“No one is without sin,” says Turow. “I don’t want to say that they are all criminals, but they all lie a little bit when it’s convenient.”
But he is willing to forgive human failings. “Have mercy,” he says. “Understand that life is not as simple as the rules make it seem.”
Scott Turow’s Suspect (Swift Press, £20) is out now. To place an order for £18 with free UK postage and delivery, visit expressbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3832
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