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A classic novel set in the U.P.

April 17, 2014 - Evan Reid
I finished reading the 1958 novel "Anatomy of a Murder" on my lunch break yesterday...

The courtroom drama was authored by John Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker was born in Ishpeming in 1903 and began practicing law in Marquette in 1928. He also practiced in Chicago before establishing his own firm in Ishpeming in 1933, and served on the Michigan Supreme Court from 1956 until 1960.

The novel is based on a real case from 1952, in which Voelker was asked to defend an Army lieutenant accused of murdering the owner of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay.

The protagonist, Paul Biegler, is a small-town lawyer asked to defend Army Lt. Frederick Manion, who was arrested for fatally shooting innkeeper Barney Quill. The shooting followed Quill’s assault and rape of Manion’s wife, Laura.

Voelker's novel, just like the 1952 murder case, is set entirely in the Upper Peninsula. The author does an excellent job describing the landscape (his characters admire Lake Superior often) and the depiction of life in the U.P. rings true.

Murder and rape are discussed frankly in the novel, and the graphic details must have been shocking at the time of its publication. However, Voelker shows incredible restraint in his prose; the lurid aspects of the case Paul Biegler is immersed in serve to support the narrative, not merely shock the audience.

The novel does seem a little dated, which isn’t surprising given Voelker was born over a century ago. Characters often engage in flowery language that has gone out of style in literature since the 1950s, and some ideas about women expressed throughout the story are chauvinistic and mildly offensive.

All in all, I found "Anatomy of a Murder" was definitely worth my time. The story is gripping, descriptive and very entertaining, the characters have realistic and well-defined personalities, and... It’s set in the U.P.

I enjoyed Voelker’s novel as a fellow Yooper, but also because it was genuinely good. Now I just have to watch the 1959 film, starring Jimmy Stewart, which I still haven’t seen... And maybe visit the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, which is still around.


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