Anatomy of a Murder – Robert Traver

I can’t believe I’ve never seen this book’s movie; I love James Stewart. But at least this way I had no idea what was going to happen next in the book; that was nice. And, funnily enough, I still had the odd little perk of being able to hear Jimmy’s voice in my head for a lot of the lines. (Oh, and Lee Remick is perfect as Laura Manion.) I have a *cough* irresistible impulse to rent the movie. Soon. (Actually, the dvd might be in my mailbox now; I just can’t get to it because of ALL THE SNOW.)

This is a book that requires the right mindset. 21st century feminist prickliness has to be firmly suppressed; all the tv and movie images of young and zealous lawyers working flat out eighteen hours a day to get their clients acquitted have to be put aside. The other images from popular media, though, the ones of lawyers seizing on any slender possibility that could remotely work in their favor? Those can stay.

Well, no, the second par of that’s not fair; once it gets going, everyone begins putting in those eighteen-+-hour days and falling asleep at their desks. It’s only in the very beginning that the main character keeps sloping off to go fishing.

None of which is to say this isn’t a terrifically fun book. It had to be made into a movie; every page screams it. It is so very late 50’s, from the dialogue pattering as easy and funny and sharp as a Gene Kelly – Donald O’Connor dance routine, to Laura Manion’s tight sweaters, to the big old chrome-and-fins cars you just know everyone’s driving. And, of course, former DA Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) (well, not in the book, except in my head) said it himself: “The case has everything. Rape, murder. Even a little dog.” It’s a fictionalized account of an actual trial, “written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker based the novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney.” (< Wikipedia)

It looks so simple at the beginning: When his wife Laura woke him up and to tell him she had been beaten and raped, Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion picked up his loaded Luger went out and shot the man she said did it, bartender Barney Quill. It’s pretty straightforward; Laura has been and continues to be courageously open about the assault, and her husband (Manny) quite matter-of-fact about the shooting. The underlying idea is What husband worth his salt wouldn’t kill the man who did that to his wife? Problem is, while perfectly human and understandable, it was still murder, and Manny’s been in jail ever since, trial pending.

Former DA Paul Biegler is pulled away from his fishing to consider taking the case for the defense. He needs a case; he’s not the only defense attorney in his small Michigan town, and the other one’s flashier; his secretary, Maida (the perfect 50’s secretary, sassy and efficient both), would like to be paid her salary, thank you. So he puts down his fishing rod and goes to the jail, and finds it a tough call: the Manions have no money. And it seems like it could be a tough sell: Laura is very frank (too frank) about Manny’s jealousy, and however much empathy there can be for a man going after someone who raped his wife, within the strict letter of the law it simply was not justifiable homicide. It was revenge. Unless… Biegler’s got a few tricks up his sleeve, and his old buddy Parnell has more up both of his, and between them – and some surprising items turned up as they look into the details of the case – they’re ready to put up a fight to get the Lieutenant free.

Cropped screenshot of the film Anatomy of a Murder

Cropped screenshot of the film Anatomy of a Murder (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I tend to doubt very many writers nowadays would quite have the gall to use phrases like Traver does. A “blouseful” indeed. And the handling of the rape and the discussion of it is … interesting, a blend of euphemism and clinical directness from everyone concerned, with almost no emotion whatsoever. The prosecution – trying to set the victim in as positive a light as possible – has no problem dismissing the rape as either irrelevant or imaginary, whichever’s more convenient, and to tarnish her reputation in any way possible; the defense is concerned that Laura’s beauty might tell against them, but otherwise is determined to stick her on the stand come what may. Her own reactions are the only real weak point of the book, perhaps excusable by the male first person point of view: clueless. I’d be curious to see a more impersonal viewpoint of Laura’s testimony, if such a thing were possible, because if she really did exhibit the level of sang-froid that she seems to in the book, she was a stunningly tough – or toughened – woman.

That being said – and being allowed to take off an invisible half star from the rating (so on LibraryThing it’s 4.5) – I enjoyed the hell out of this book. The film of Anatomy of a Murder was directed and produced by Otto Preminger, but – rape aside – I could easily see this as a Capra film. The blurring of right and wrong – who’s lying? And why? What exactly is the truth, and should this man be allowed out of jail? – side by side with the sort of fervent idealism Jimmy Stewart should have had a patent on … again, whoever was at the helm, it’s the perfect 50’s movie. In a book.

Because Jimmy Stewart plays our hero in the movie, there may be little doubt going in as to how the case will turn out – but it’s not that simple. It’s a pitched battle, this trial, a bare-knuckle no-holds-barred brawl in which just about anything goes as long as you word it right. I’ve never seen or read a better revelation of the nuts and bolts of the US trial system – the mechanics of getting people to say – on and off the stand – what you as either the defense or the prosecutor need them to say, without letting out details that tip things to the other side. The head-to-head expert witnesses, the careful manipulation of the witnesses and the jury, the role of the judge and the use and formation of precedent – so that’s what draws some people to the law. It has to be exhilarating. And it all comes down to a nail-biter, complete with a last-minute curveball and an epilogue that will leave you blinking.

Characterization is vivid and colorful – and so is the setting. Dialogue is natural; supernatural, actually, in its wittiness and quickness – this is the way I wish I could talk (except less chauvinistic). And the story is gripping. It’s terrific.

Side note: I find this other comment from the Wikipedia entry for the movie nauseatingly unsettling: “The Lumberjack Tavern is still in existence today. The murder scene body outline is still there, although it is possibly a restoration and not the original outline.” There’s a picture, captioned “where the body fell”:

Seriously? (And Barney actually died behind the bar, at least in the book – but that wouldn’t be as much … fun, I guess.)

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