Picks and Pans Review: The Burden of Proof

updated 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Scott Turow

Pity poor Scott Turow. With the overwhelming success of 1987's Presumed Innocent, his absorbing first novel, the 41-year-old Chicago lawyer-auteur gave himself an impossibly tough act to follow.

Comparisons, we are told, are odious, but they are inevitable, and The Burden of Proof doesn't measure up to its predecessor. For starters, the new novel lacks the immediacy of Innocent's first-person, present-tense narrative. Instead, Burden is written in a bland, dispassionate third person.

If the prose seems less exciting, it may be due in part to Turow's choice of protagonist, Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, who served as Rusty Sabich's defense attorney in Presumed Innocent. In that novel, Stern was a well-drawn secondary character, seen mostly in the courtroom. In Burden, Stern assumes center stage. A resourceful lawyer, Stern is less interesting away from the courthouse. In effect, Turow has borrowed a TV notion: Take a strong supporting character from a hit show and spin him off to his own series. The practice has limited success, and this book is a good example of why.

Turow gets Burden off to a promising start. In the first scene, Stern comes home from a business trip to find that Clara, his wife of 31 years, has apparently committed suicide. At 56, the Argentine-born lawyer is "stout and bald, and never particularly good-looking." and, suddenly, he is alone. Well, not totally alone, for he has three adult children, a sister and, soon, a string of female admirers. Turow's most vivid character is Stern's unprincipled brother-in-law, Dixon Hartnell, head of a brokerage firm called Maison Dixon. While trying to understand the motives behind his wife's death, Stern is also defending Hartnell in a commodities scam.

Burden is not without virtues. Like Innocent, this novel gives an inside look at the moral issues lawyers often face. There are flashes of humor ("Perhaps there was some record Dixon meant to set: most laws broken in a single theft") and warmth—one delightful scene describes a strawberry-picking trip. (In an author's note, Turow ascribes "most of the good lines in Chapter 29" to his 7-year-old-son, Gabriel.)

Complicated without being compelling, Burden's plot has many minor mysteries but no major whodunit. A case of herpes plays an inordinately large role in piecing the puzzle together. Several of the surprise twists are not all that surprising.

As the story moves, with all deliberate speed, to its conclusion, the reader wants to know the truth almost as much as Stern. Yet in the end, The Burden of Proof is overwrought, overlong and, beyond a reasonable doubt, overburdened—by the curse of great expectations. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $22.95)

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