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Two recent novels, Presumed Innocent and The Good Mother, have more in common than critical success, longevity on best-seller lists and big-name movie adaptations. Both books are about law: Presumed Innocent is a tale of murder in the big city; The Good Mother is the story of a custody fight over a little girl. Central characters in both books are lawyers. Turow is a lawyer, and Miller thanks lawyers. While the books could be classified in other ways – Presumed Innocent as mystery, The Good Mother as women's fiction – each meets a suggested genre specification of a legal novel: “the presence of an important, perhaps decisive, legal trial.” The murder trial in Presumed Innocent answers the plot's spiraling question of whodunit, or at least who didn't. In The Good Mother the custody trial isolates and resolves legal issues of parenting pulled from an intense personal thicket.

In addition to genre, the books share themes essential to the story line of each but not apparent from reviews, press releases, or jacket blurbs. Both books are about women who enjoy nonmarital sex and are punished for it: one becomes a murder victim; the other loses custody of her child. Both women are characterized as bad mothers, a status connected to sexual activity and, especially in The Good Mother, responsible for their losses.

In this essay I argue that through the powerful coincidence of popularity, genre, and theme, Presumed Innocent and The Good Mother reinforce notions about the relation between good sex and bad mothering, and advance serious, nonfiction messages for women about law and sex. The point is not that all women who have intercourse with officemates are bound for glory, or that all single mothers with boyfriends lose custody of their children. Presumed Innocent and The Good Mother are novels, not star charts or manuals. They are, however, novels worth reading, and not just because they made noteworthy summertime reading lists.


Criminal Law | Law | Law Enforcement and Corrections | Sexuality and the Law


Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow, New York: Warner, 1987, pp. 421, paper, $4.95.

The Good Mother by Sue Miller, New York: Harper & Row, 1986, pp. 310, paper, $4.95.