Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

Originally appeared in the Times of Northwest Indiana

Attorney Paul "Polly" Biegler knows from day one that his client, army Lieutenant Lawrence Manion, has shot and killed hotel owner Barney Quill hardly an hour after Quill raped and beat Manion's wife. There is no mystery about that, and Biegler is not a detective. The mystery in Anatomy of a Murder lies, for the reader, in watching Biegler defend his client in court, and try to convince a jury to come to the verdict that must be one of the most difficult to persuade a jury to accept: not guilty by reason of temporary insanity.

As the plot unfolds, Biegler and an avuncular old lawyer friend do some digging around the crime scene, and interview interested parties who may or may not know more than they are ready to admit about the dead man's drinking habits and his gun collection, and about the lieutenant's behavior and state of mind on the fatal night. But most of the book is a courtroom drama, one that may perhaps get a little wordy for readers plunging into that genre for the first time. The two lawyers, Biegler and his nemesis, the nearly Satanic and ferociously talented prosecutor "little" Claude Dancer, orate with an elegance (and a lung capacity) that is hard to credit as realistic, unless we know from experience that lawyers really do talk this way, or unless we understand that everybody in the 1950s had longer attention spans and better vocabulary than we do now.

The greatest interest of the book lies in its almost loving depiction of the Anglo-American legal tradition in action. The law might be considered the most important character in the book. Author Robert Traver acknowledges ordinary people's occasional mystification before the law; an uncomfortable witness on the stand complains about " 'smart lawyer's tricks,' " and early on, someone quotes the character in Dickens who blurts out " 'The law is a ass.' "

But as we watch Paul Biegler defend a client whose violent deed is unquestioned and whose truthfulness he sometimes suspects, we remember the discussions he had with his avuncular friend. For all its confusions and imperfections, law is the only alternative to constant violence as any society's governor. And Anglo-American law, which insists life and death questions shall be decided by a jury of ordinary people and not by kings or judges only, at least helps guarantee that the outcome of a trial will not be a foregone conclusion. A trial is not pretty, however. It's a dog fight, as Biegler admits, couched and controlled in fine old medieval English words, but ultimately a "savage and primal" human battle for survival.

At the end, the reader is firmly in the jury's shoes. We have received the judge's instructions and we know what we must do, according to the law, depending on what we think of all the truths we have heard. We have a hugely difficult decision to make.

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