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Quick Excerpts from Anatomy of a Murder

May 14, 2010

I’ve recently been filling in some of the gaps in my reading of classic mysteries and thrillers, and I just finished Robert Traver’s landmark book, Anatomy of a Murder — coming to the book as a fan already of Otto Preminger’s film adaptation. Perhaps it’s that I already knew so much of the plot in advance, or perhaps the book just hasn’t aged well, but despite the novel’s pivotal place in the development of the courtroom drama, I found it long-winded, over-written, boorish in more than a few spots, and ultimately anti-climactic. (How’s that for a recommendation? I gave it three stars on my Goodreads page for “significance” but that’s about all I could muster on its behalf.)

Still, a few paragraphs from the 400+ pages did stick with me, and are worth sharing here for what their commentary on the genre itself:

…more of my fellow writers ought to explore the neglected boneyards of the law and pay far more heed to that busiest of all stages in our society, the public courtroom. For it is there, and only there, where some of the most moving dramas of our times regularly unfold.

That’s from the author’s introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition in 198, and boy, did more than a few writers make good on that advice; think Turow and Grisham and….

True, in our case there was little mystery about what had actually taken place — that was becoming all too brutally apparent. But these facts, however melodramatic, skimmed but the surface, were in themselves merely the tip of the iceberg at sea; it was the ‘inner facts,’ the heart of the cast itself, that teemed with the stuff of real mystery, the deepening tangle of dark impulses and mixed motives of real men and women.

Amen, brother.

And how about this exchange to close things out?

“Let’s sell this plot to the movies,” Maida said, “and all take a trip on the proceeds.”

“A trip to the monkey house,” I said morosely. “Plot these days is anti-intellectual and verboten, the mark of the Philistine, the huckster with a pen. There mustn’t be too much story and that should be fog-bound and shrouded in heavy symbolism, including the phallic, like a sort of convoluted literary charade. Symbolism now carries the day, it’s the one true ladder to literary heaven.”

Traver offered those sentiments up more than a half-century ago. Don’t get me started on how much of the spirit of those attitudes he’s railing against might still remain true in some circles now….

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