Anatomy of a Murder was the book that gave John Voelker prominence as a writer. It was the fifth book that he wrote, but the fourth to be published (after Troubleshooter, 1943, Danny and the Boys, 1951, and Small Town D.A., 1954). It was the first of his books to make the best-seller lists across the country. To learn more about the book, the events surrounding its publication and other works by John D. Voelker, please visit the Archives exhibit here.
Voelker served as Prosecuting Attorney of Marquette County in 1934 from 1935 through 1950, except for 1943 and 1944. Throughout his years as prosecuting attorney he also maintained a private practice. After his defeat by Edmund Thomas of Ishpeming in the 1950 election, he returned to full-time private practice.
In 1952 Voelker was asked to defend Army Lt. Coleman Peterson, who was accused of the murder of Mike Chenoweth, owner of the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay. After a six-day trial the jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Voelker turned over the events of the trial in his mind, and in 1953 he began tinkering with the idea of writing a novel based on the trial. He was not able to take the idea very far because he was working on the final draft of Small Town D.A., which was published by Dutton in 1954.
Following the publication of Small Town D.A. he devoted all of his writing time to Anatomy of a Murder. By early 1956 he had completed a revised draft of the novel and began sending it to publishers. The publishers were not impressed, and the rejection slips began to pile up. Sherman Baker, his editor at Dutton, had moved to St. Martin’s Press, so he sent the manuscript to Baker. Baker liked what he read, but also realized that the pre-trial portion of the novel was too long and needed to be substantially pruned. In October 1956 he flew to Marquette and spent the weekend with Voelker cutting and refashioning the manuscript so that the trial was the centerpiece of the novel. Voelker then prepared another draft, the third, of the novel for formal submission to St. Martin’s Press.
On December 20, 1956 Sherman Baker notified Voelker that St. Martin’s Press had accepted Anatomy of a Murder for publication. At the end of that month Governor G. Mennen Williams telephoned to offer John a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court to fill the remainder of a vacant term. Mr. Justice Voelker was sworn in as an associate justice several days later. At that time Michigan law required justices to stand for election at the next statewide election following their appointment to an unexpired term, so in addition to his court work and making revisions and corrections to the novel, he had to campaign for his court seat. He was elected by a resounding majority. The same situation would recur in the spring of 1959 when Voelker had to campaign for re-election to the Michigan Supreme Court while serving as technical advisor for the filming of the screen version of the novel. Once again he was elected by a resounding majority.
Publication of Anatomy of a Murder was scheduled for mid-September 1957. However, the Book-of-the-Month Club chose the novel for one of its alternate selections and requested that publication be postponed until January 1958. St. Martin’s acquiesced, and the book was published in early January 1958. It was an instant success and quickly climbed the best-seller lists, staying there for over a year. St. Martin’s planned to have the book turned into a Broadway play and then a motion picture, and asked John Van Druten to write the play. Van Druten completed a rough draft of the script before he died in December 1957. Eventually Elihu Winer wrote his version of the play, which had its premiere at the Mill Run Theater in the Chicago suburbs in 1963. Meanwhile, St. Martin’s had made the film rights available, and they were finally acquired by Otto Preminger. All of the filming was done in Marquette County. The film was very successful and is considered to be one of the top ten courtroom dramas on film.
Filmed throughout the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (mostly in Big Bay, Marquette, Ishpeming, and Michigamme) the movie was nominated for six Academy Awards and features original music composed by Duke Ellington.