Anatomy of a Murder Is a Keeper

Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder is courtroom drama at its best.

Lieutenant Frederic Manion shot Barney Quill to death in front of a room full of witnesses in Quill’s hotel bar before turning himself in. Manion says Quill had raped his wife.

Paul “Polly” Biegler dislikes Manion on sight, but since he lost his bid for re-election as county prosecutor, he needs income, and Manion needs a lawyer. Polly gets his secretary and an aging, alcoholic lawyer to help him defend Manion.

The only legal defense open to Manion is insanity.

At the trial, the novice prosecuting attorney is “assisted” by a savvy lawyer from the Attorney General’s office. It’s a fight to the finish—with the real excitement coming after the verdict.

Polly is an unlikely hero. Gentle, middle-aged, and funny, he pursues wily trout instead of luscious babes and remembers (sometimes) to water his mother’s plants while she’s away.

Anatomy of a Murder has mystery, courtroom drama, humor, a sprinkle of romance, and a generous helping of memorable personalities. Despite the passage of a half century, the story still rings true except for one thing: it’s impossible to imagine a murder case going to trial today in less than three months.

Anatomy of a Murder
by Robert Traver
St. Martin’s 1958
437 pages
Bestseller #2 for 1958
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dr. Zhivago Died with Cold War

Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago hit bookshelves in 1958 when American fear of Communists could be measured in home bomb shelters and elementary school air raid drills. The novel became a bestseller and inspired a movie whose title song dominated the air waves.

I vaguely recall the movie as a long series of photographs of snow and people in fur hats. The novel isn’t quite that interesting.

A rogue lawyer sexually exploits a young girl. She later becomes a nurse and has an affair with Dr. Zhivago, who lost his parents and family fortune thanks to the same lawyer. The lovers become separated from their families and also from each other.

As the Communists take over the country, Zhivago dies, Laura disappears, but Russia goes on.

Pasternak holds his characters at arm’s length and describes them in generalizations: this one is beautiful, that one is intelligent. None of the characters emerges as a real person. They’re all just people in fur hats. The Russian way of naming people compounds the difficulty of recognizing individuals. In a single paragraph, Zhivago may be referred to as Zhivago, Yura, Yurochka, and Yurri Andreievich.

Watch the film instead of reading the book. Neither is particularly entertaining, but the film is shorter.

Dr. Zhivago
by Boris Pasternak
Trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari
Pantheon, 1958
519+ pages
#1 bestseller for 1958
My grade: C-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

1958 Bestseller List

In a few hours it will be 2008. All through the year, I’ll be looking backward to novels that were top sellers 50 or more years ago.

The first bestseller list I’ll review is the hit novels of 1958. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak topped the list. Today the title is more familiar from the movies than from the bookshelves. Find out whether the print version has stood the test of time in my first review of 2008.

Other novels coming up in the next 10 weeks are:

2. Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
3. Loita by Valdmir Nobokov
4. Around the World with Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
5. From the Terrace by John O’Hara
6. Eloise at Christmastime by Kay Thompson
7. Ice Palace by Edna Ferber
8. The Winthrop Woman by Anya Seton
9. The Enemy Camp by Jerone Weldman
10. Victorine by Frances Parkinson Keyes

Some of these were—and are—fine novels. A few are so dull I can’t recall what they were about without looking at my notes.

I hope to be able to serve up reviews of the top books of and 1948, 1938 and 1928 before 2008 is over. I’ve got four or five novels from those years that I haven’t found yet, but I’ll keep looking.

Happy New Year—and Happy Reading!

Linda