Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver: A Review by Warren Bull
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver was published in 1958. It quickly became the number-one best-selling book in America. It is probably better known today as the classic Otto Preminger film starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott. The movie was rated number 4 of the top 25 greatest legal movies by the American Bar Association. I heartily recommend that you see the black and white film or see it again as the case may be. Among its many honors, were three Grammy Awards for composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn for the movie’s sound track.
I also highly recommend the novel. At 526 pages, it ended much too soon for my liking. The author, actually named John Donaldson Voelker, worked as a county prosecuting attorney and served on the Michigan Supreme Court. The plot is well known. In front of a bar full of people an army officer shoots and kills a man who raped his wife. He is charged with murder. A former prosecuting attorney defends him during the trial by arguing that he was insane when he killed the man.
The book takes us through the preparation for the trial, the actual trial and, briefly, through its immediate aftermath. It portrays the flaws inherent in the legal system. The prosecuting and defense attorneys both coach their witnesses although they use different language for what they do. Each side wants to present that part of the truth that supports the verdict they desire.
For example when the accused man’s wife is advised that the prosecutor may imply that she was complicit and not actually raped she asks how a lawyer could distort what he knows is the truth. The protagonist answers, “We lawyers quickly develop a protective scar tissue to take care of that…It’s all rather simple. It is our lofty conviction, hugged so dearly to our hearts, that our case is basically just and right and that those on the other side are just a pack of lying and guilty knaves…It’s merely the same old dilemma of man in a new guise: that supposed noble ends can ever justify shabby means. Mitch will tell himself — and with considerable force — that even if Barney did rape you, it gave Manny no legal justification to kill him. So the man must be guilty. From there it’s only a small jump, a mere breeze to convince himself that the ultimate truth or falsity doesn’t matter. Don’t you see?”
Throughout the novel that author allows us inside the head of the defense attorney. He allows us a peek at the legal system during a trail from a vantage point we almost never have. It is a griping, fascinating picture of the unpredictable ups and downs of a trial as experienced by an experienced advocate. The author does not neglect the work needed after the day in court is over and before the next session starts.
Anatomy of a Murder has been described as America’s favorite courtroom drama. It’s easy to see why.