Saturday, March 3, 2012

Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder
© 1958 Robert Traver
448 pages

A woman is raped at the gates of her neighborhood, but her cries for help register too late. By the time her husband, one Lieutenant Frederic Manion of the US Army, realizes what has transpired, the rapist has fled for the safety of the local bar...a bar which he owns.  Undeterred, the Lieutenant enters the bar, calmly empties his Luger pistol into the man's chest, and leaves to deliver himself into the hands of the closest deputy-sheriff.  Paul Biegler is a former prosecuting attorney with congressional ambitions and a struggling practice. While Biegler is a potent lawyer, a more bombastic rival in town attracts most of the criminal defense work. A call from Manion seems like a dread godsend: while a victory could establish and spread his reputation, a defeat might make him a laughingstock. The prosecuting attorney is a man who has already defeated Biegler once at the polls, and who has an eye on the same congressional seat as Biegler.   This seems like a simple case: a decorated war hero killed the man who raped his wife. But it isn't enough that a jury might sympathize with Manion morally:  how can he be defended legally?

The American Bar Association includes the dramatization of this book on their list of "25 Greatest Legal Movies", and that list drew my attention to the book in the first place. While I've been reading legal thrillers by John Grisham for the last fifteen years, I'd never heard of this 1950s-era novel.  Despite the dramatic start, Anatomy isn't a 'thriller'; it strikes me as a more mature novel. The author was a practicing attorney and a judge, and wrote the novel based on one of his own cases. The judge's lifetime of of experience is on full display here, talking with the reader through Biegler's conversations with Manion and others about the nature of law itself: its uses, its shortcomings. Anatomy is thus a philosophical novel, and I for one found the musing just as provocative as any nonfiction read. The trial remains an interesting mystery throughout, as there proves to be more to the story than a hotel owner deciding to attack Mrs. Manion. Traver (John D. Voelker's pen-name)'s best talent lies with dialogue. The aforementioned philosophical conversations are fascinating, of course,  but the on-going banter between Biegler and his law partner never failed to delight.  In short, Anatomy of a Murder is a richer legal novel than any I've read, and I wish my library carried more by the author. I also intend on watching the movie, but that's a given considering it stars James Stewart.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, I'm not at all familiar with this book, but it sounds pretty good.


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