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Authors: Robert Traver

Anatomy of a Murder

BOOK: Anatomy of a Murder
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to my friend Raymond
For permission to preprint the following, grateful acknowledgment is made to:
Harper & Brothers for a selection from THROUGH THESE MEN by John Mason Brown.
Callaghan & Company for a selection from Callaghan.'s MICHIGAN PLEADING AND PRACTICE.
The Lawyers Co-operative Publishing Company for the selections from 70 American Law Reports.
After serving for fourteen years as district attorney of the northern Michigan county where I was born, one chilly fall election day I found myself abruptly paroled from my job by the unappealable verdict of the electorate. The thing was almost painless: a few punches and pulls of the “wrong” voting gadgets and—presto—I was an ex-D.A.
I also found myself in a bit of a bind. I was fast approaching fifty, two of our three daughters were in college, and between prosecuting criminal cases and pursuing the elusive trout, it seemed I had neglected anything as mundane as building up a private law practice.
Moreover, after the spot-lighted thrust and swordplay of the public courtroom, I seemed to have developed an allergy to crouching in an office all day drafting legal documents full of such luminous phrases as “said party of the first part as aforesaid.”
For a spell I tried varied strategems to avoid all those lurking aforesaids. At the time prospecting for uranium was high on the achievements list in our granite-strewn mining area, so I quickly bought a Geiger counter—only twelve easy payments—and resolutely marched off to the granite hills to serve both Mammon and my country. There I soon collided with the whole mountain of radioactive thorium, which, it also soon developed, nobody wanted, evidently much preferring to be blown up, if and when, by scarcer and therefore far tonier uranium.
Next I wrote my second book about my D.A. experiences, which was duly accepted and published and generously reviewed but which nevertheless raced the first one—along with an interim book of short stories—to a blissful out-of-print oblivion, where all three still slumber.
By then another election year had rolled around, so I threw my hat in the ring for Congress (a fate common to unemployed ex-D.A.s, I have since observed), but I barely carried my own county in our sprawling northern Michigan district.
Since neither prospecting nor spinning yarns nor free trips to Washington seemed to be in the cards, I pondered my next move on how I might duck those pesky aforesaids.
Then a rare intruding client interrupted my meditations, an aggrieved citizen who, it seemed, had inadvertently sneezed while rounding a highway curve and had been picked up by the cops for drunk driving. Would I defend him against this crass miscarriage of justice? I would and did, and though I forget just how justice fared in that one, I soon began popping up in scattered justice courts defending similarly aggrieved citizens.
Then a series of felonies began sweeping the county, like an invasion of
locusts, and, apparently since I hadn't quite lost the courthouse and jail during my D.A. stint, I suddenly found myself up to my ears acting as defense counsel down in the old stone courthouse overlooking Lake Superior.
With the approach of winter came a lull in the crime wave, and I briefly considered writing a deep think-tank piece—complete with both footnotes
footpads—on the eerie effects of changing seasons on human behavior. I already had the title: “Weather to Steal or Not to Steal.” Instead I had a sudden impulse to write my first novel. After all, I reflected, I'd already written books of yarns, so why not for a change tackle and concentrate on one single story, say, about one single courtroom trial?
Since I now bore the scars of fighting on both sides of the courtroom barricades, I finally decided to write about a murder trial. The courtroom was one arena I knew something about, and by now I'd appeared on both sides in some pretty bang-up murder trials.
About then I recalled the farewell words of the teacher of the only “creative writing” course I'd ever taken. “Remember, kids,” the man had said, “writing about people and places you know can help give your stuff the ring of authenticity.” He paused and smiled. “And never forget that old saying: ‘An ounce of authenticity is worth a pound of windgassity.”
Another reason I wanted to tackle a single courtroom trial was that I had a small ax of my own to grind. For a long time I had seen too many movies and read too many books and plays about trials that were almost comically phony and overdone, mostly in their extravagant efforts to overdramatize an already inherently dramatic human situation.
I longed to try my hand at telling about a criminal trial the way it really was, and, after my years of immersion, I felt equally strongly that a great part of the tension and drama of any major felony trial lay in its very understatement, its pent and almost stifled quality, not in the usually portrayed shoutings and stompings and assorted finger-waggings that almost inevitably accompanied the sudden appearance and subsequent grilling of that monotonously dependable last-minute witness … .
In what other forum, I asked myself, could a battle for such awesomely high stakes—freedom and sometimes life itself—be fought in such a muted atmosphere of hushed ritual and controlled decorum, one so awash with ancient rites and Latinized locutions, one so filled with such obeisant rhetorical antiquities as “If it please Your Honor” and all the rest?
So I scribbled the winter away, doggedly expunging all aforesaids, finally putting down my pen and taking up my fly rod and bundling my story off to the New York publisher of my last book. Then I folded my
arms and impatiently awaited his ecstatic response. One day it came, puzzlingly accompanied by my manuscript, of all things. By then I'd learned to label my rejections, and this one was of the variety I kept in a special file called No, But with a Heavy Heart.
Rallying, I tried another New York house and once again waited for courtroom authenticity to prevail. Prevail it did not, but instead my manuscript, along with a terse mimeographed rejection slip, almost beat me back from the post office, at least establishing a new speed record in my mounting collection of rejections.
Then one evening while I was out fishing, amidst the hum of insects and the swoop of nighthawks, I suddenly remembered an editor who'd worked on my last book and liked it. So the next morning, almost apologetically, I baled the manuscript of
Anatomy of a Murder
off to Sherman Baker at the new New York house where he worked and—presto—both he and St. Martin's grabbed it—and doubtless saved me from a lifetime bondage to said aforesaids.
After that things began happening at a furious pace. I can't possibly remember all but I do recall a few. Thus, the very weekend Sherman Baker phoned the book's acceptance, Governor G. Mennen Williams phoned his appointment of me to sit on the Michigan supreme court. Then the Book-of-the-Month Club nodded and beamed as the book soared off and away and got itself glued to the best-seller lists. A grinning Johnny Carson mispronounced my name on television. My split infinitives appeared in seventeen languages. Elihu Winer made a play out of my story … .
Then Otto Preminger and, it seemed, half of Hollywood descended upon the old stone courthouse in which I'd postured and pirouetted before so many juries for so many years. While I may lack a certain critical detachment, I thought and still think Otto did a grand job of picturing what I'd tried to write. If I'm right I also like to think that part of the reason is that contrary to the usual Otto-the-Autocrat legends, he not only consulted both Joseph M. Welch and me on the filming, especially of the courtroom scenes, but listened closely to what we said.
Mature movie fans may recall that Joseph Welch played the part of the presiding judge, masterfully I may add. Between takes he also taught me to play gin rummy, and though his tuition was high, we became close friends, later touring Israel and part of Europe together with our wives, and even planned doing a book. Then in Rome he was forced to fly home with a sudden illness from which, alas, he never recovered—and our book alas, was never born.
Looking back, I find our friendship one of the high rewards of the
adventure (I almost wrote “ordeal”). We talked of many things: of our shared interest in the concern over the changing role of lawyers in our society; of our almost guilty feeling, also shared, that the office part of the law had mostly bored us, just as the dramatic kinship of the public courtroom to the stage had always beckoned; and, on a loftier level, how friendship itself was such a curious mixture of chemistry and propinquity, of the almost scarily fortuitous quality in kindred souls occasionally being lucky enough to find each other.
On some days, parched by a particularly grueling session of gin rummy, we'd raise a glass to Otto for bringing together two bewildered wanderers groping their way in the blinding glare of publicity: Joseph's the result of a long and distinguished career culminating in the historic Army-McCarthy hearings (in their day rivaling even the more recent Watergate hearings); mine the unexpected result of a lone shot-in-the-dark attempt by a restless country lawyer to relieve office boredom by spinning an “authentic” courtroom yarn and perhaps, with luck even winning the price of a new fly rod—along with the golden chance to play hooky more often (a guy could dream, couldn't he?), to go wooing those sensible office-shunning trout with his new fairy wand.
Somehow I managed to survive the trauma of best-sellerdom by still clinging to a few shreds of humility. But it was a narrow squeak, and perhaps some evidence that I may have made it is that I still haven't found that writing has become any easier. Nor have I succumbed to the illusion that seems to afflict many of its victims that my idlest scribblings should henceforth be carved in bronze or that my most casual rhetorical burps have now become worth a buck a burp.
One thing that almost surely helped save me was the memory of those two earlier rejections, tough as they were to swallow at the time. Another was the enthusiastic acceptance by the old
Saturday Evening
Post (after
appeared) of the very same fishing story (for which it now paid through the nose) it had earlier swiftly rejected before
appeared. And I hadn't changed a single blooming comma! When the same yarn shortly appeared as the lead-off piece in the annual bound
Best of the Post
my humility ranneth over … .
Humility got a further boost when the unpublished book from which the fishing story was taken,
Trout Madness
(and which prior to my novel I couldn't sell or give away, in whole or in part), was promptly grabbed and published and became and remains a sort of piscatorial best-seller of its own. As my stock of humility rose I continued to marvel over how high notoriety alone could so remarkably whet and sharpen the critical faculties of our tribe.
I have written two other “courtroom” novels,
Laughing Whitefish
and the recent
People Versus Kirk
, all three of which now roost under the same publishing roof. All three were either based upon or drawn from or inspired by actual litigated courtroom cases, and I continue to be surprised that six of my eleven published books were drawn from the law.
All of which may suggest that 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. Skeptics are invited to marvel and look back over just a few of the so quickly forgotten “front page” trials of recent years—and then take up their pens.
Robert Traver
December 1982
BOOK: Anatomy of a Murder
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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