Beer & Book Club | Anatomy of a Murder & Two Hearted Ale
When I was offered an internship for the summer at the Prosecutor’s Office in a small county tucked away in the fingers of Michigan, I immediately knew my summer reading had to include Anatomy of a Murder. Anatomy of a Murder has long been hailed as one of the best examples of how law & order actually work. Besides that, it was supposed to be damned entertaining. I’ve spent the last two months learning the ins and outs of prosecuting a case both in the courtroom and through the eternal, if overly elaborate, wisdom of Robert Travers (aka former Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker) and his Trout-obsessed country lawyer in Paul Biegler.
Set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Paul Biegler is a former County Prosecutor who has been down on his luck since losing his post to a young veteran hot-shot. He spends most of his time out in the vast rivers of Michigan hunting trout and occasionally hanging out with an older attorney whose alcoholism has made him unemployable, Parnell McCarthy. With no interest in the scraps of legal work he has on his hands, he faces an upcoming election for the state senate against the same Prosecutor whose ousted him from one job already. That’s when the case of a lifetime falls into his lap.
A military man who is stationed in the area has murdered a local bar owner, in a crime he’s already admitted to doing, with multiple witnesses. The Lieutenant claims he shot the man because he had raped the Lieutenant’s wife. The good attorney sees a small slice of a chance where the Lieutenant could be declared legally insane at the time of the murder and decides to take the case. However, it’s an uphill struggle mired in minute details stuck in stuffy, dusty case law and a host of witnesses all with ulterior motives. With McCarthy and Maida, his trusty & underpaid secretary beside him, they work both as investigators and legal researchers to bring the case to trial. I don’t want to spill too much more than that because most of the fun of the book is making discoveries along with Biegler. Travers/Voelker was well known for his robust way with words and the book definitely is filled with lush prose. The author is much more interested in pleasing himself in terms of description so don’t expect some Hemingwayesque “Nick went to the Lake. The Lake was cold. He pushed the boat out.” type of story-telling. Voelker and his fictional doppelganger are both clearly in love with the beauty and unspoiled vistas of the Upper Peninsula as well, and he makes every attempt to create landscapes with his words to set you in the middle of those big skies and green forests.
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As I stated before, lawyers love the book because it’s written by an actual lawyer who understands how murder trials go and doesn’t sugar coat it for the laymen. Voelker was a sharp former prosecutor who was actually able to argue his way out of being kicked out of law school for poor grades. The book itself is basically a retelling of his own murder case, People v. Coleman Peterson, and was so wildly successful that he retired from the Bench after only three years because he made so much money. The story reveals a lot of the dancing around issues of guilt and the small difference between telling someone to lie and notifying them of a possible defense that COULD be relevant to their proceedings. It also shows how critical the most subtle differences in using one word over another can be. The trial itself is absolutely thrilling and somehow makes jury instructions (literally the WORST PART Of a trial to sit through) the climax of the story. Unlike many of other court dramas that rely on complete and utter surprises and abject dishonesty to create suspense, Anatomy of a Murder both shows the preparation and gamesmanship that lawyers go through in a jury trial and properly explains the rules that control them. For anyone who loves a Grisham-y legal thriller or Law & Order, this is a vital bridge between pleasure and reality that will make you appreciate the less-legally bound stories all the more.
For those of you who aren’t readers, it was turned into an acclaimed movie starring Jimmy Stewart with music by Duke Ellington that was nominated for 7 Oscars. It’s part of the Criteron Collection and is on my list to watch now that I’ve finished the book.
If Paul Biegler were alive today, he’d probably be rocking cases of Two-Hearted Ale in a cooler down by his favorite fishing holes. Two-Hearted is named after an Upper Peninsula River full of trout famous for an early and influential Ernest Hemingway story. Like Paul, it’s a beer that’s been around the block and faced years of trends while staying staunchly committed to its sense of integrity and simplicity. While the river is a bit out of the way for Iron Cliffs County, it still encompasses all the beauty of the U.P. that Biegler and Voelker revel in. As our own Mr. Pylant describes, it’s nice a crisp IPA to keep you cool while you sit in the hot sun waiting for a fish to bite or a flash of brilliant analysis to hit you.