review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

anatomy of a murderAnatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

St. Martins, 1958

I borrowed my copy from the library.

I am endlessly fascinated by the raw drama of a murder trial, of the defendant fighting so inarticulately for his freedom–his is the drama of understatement–, of the opposing counsel–those masters of overstatement, flamboyantly fighting for victory, for reputation, for more clients, for political advancement, for God knows what–, of the weathervane jury swaying this way and that, of the judge himself trying his damndest to guess right and at the same time preserve a measure of decorum…Yes, a murder trial is a fascinating pageant. p. 245

Anatomy of a Murder is simply the best and most involved legal procedural I have read. After a bit of an unappealing start, the book became very interesting to me and I read the hefty tome in about two days, something which doesn’t happen often for me. First a word about the unappealing start: Traver is a man obsessed with fly fishing, and the first section of the book before lawyer Polly Biegler takes the case of Lieutenant Manion, accused of murdering his wife’s rapist at a bar in the remote Upper Peninsula town of Thunder Bay, is heavy on backstory and pontificating about the law and fly fishing for trout. It has to be trout, not bass, God forbid! The characterizations and backstories at the beginning are a bit cliched and heavy-handed, but character is not the key to this novel. This is a legal procedural par excellence, and the characterizations are what a lawyer in the middle of a huge case would uncover or hypothesize about.

I’m not a criminal lawyer, but this was fascinating nonetheless: there is a lot of discussion of strategy during trial, during the investigation, and during trial preparation. And I have to commend a book for including the bases for objections during the courtroom scenes. Yes, Traver dramatized the murder trial for maximum effect: he left out many witnesses whose testimony was cumulative and the chapter breaks make for maximum impact.

Back to the issue of characters: this novel deals with a lot of undiscussed issues that drive the main characters. Polly is a lawyer in quite desperate straits in his career and personal life. Traver doesn’t dwell on just how desperate Polly is, but it affects his representation of Lieutenant Manion. Traver also doesn’t go into the dynamics of Lieutenant and Mrs. Manion’s marriage, which seems like a crucial part of the story as well. I suspect that their relationship is violent, but Traver focuses only on the violent murder of Laura Manion’s alleged rapist. This may be a sign that the book was written in 1958.

As for other signs that make the book a sign of its era, Traver repeatedly mentions the American obsession with the Soviets and the paranoia of the Cold War, and he has a pointed speech against the then-recently-completed Mackinaw Bridge that linked the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula. And lastly, the casual sexism can be a bit much in spots. Thankfully the courtroom scenes and drama make up for that.

I’m very glad I finally read this book, and I’m eager to watch the film version soon.

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11 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver”

  1. I’m just reading a novel (True North by Jim Harrison) which mentions this book, and has its author as a very minor character. (The books are set in the same area & I think True North is somewhat autobiographical). I read this years ago, and we have the film somewhere on DVD – must dig them both out. Thanks for a great review.

  2. Thanks for the information, Moira: Voelker (Traver was a pseudonym) is pretty well-known in Michigan as a judge and flyfisherman, or maybe I just remember the glut of articles from a few years ago for the book’s fiftieth anniversary. Hope you get to the movie soon!

  3. Rebecca, I just got a vintage copy of this book at the Planned Parenthood book sale. I had no idea it was so long. My copy is 512 pages of very tiny print. I haven’t seen the movie either so looking forward to both. Your review was very helpful.

    1. Thanks, Tracy: hope you enjoy it, and I hope you found some good reads at the massive book sale too. I think the pace of the book really picks up after the first 50 pages, Also I really don’t watch too many movies lately, but that may change once it’s winter.

  4. Made into a film with Jimmy Stewart that seems to foreshadow (ahem) The Accused (1988, Jodie Foster). I prefer The Accused but remember Jimmy Stewart asking grave questions about Mrs Manions panties (pronounced pannies).

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