I’m trying to find some good legal thrillers to read, and it’s not as easy as I’d hoped. I’ve mined out most of my favorites: Scott Turow hasn’t published anything lately, Sheldon Siegel ran out of steam with Mike Daley, John LesCroart’s stories have drifted away from the courtroom, and William Lashner seems to have stopped writing his hilarious Victor Carl series.
I’ve tried a couple new new authors who pop up in my Amazon recommendations, but they’ve both been disappointing. The protagonist of one if them is a biglaw partner who is appointed to help an indigent murder defendant and loses his partnership in the process. He teams up with an old friend from law school who has been doing storefront street-level criminal defense for about a decade. This sounds like a good idea to me because I figure the biglaw guy needs someone to teach him the ropes, but at one point the author has the crimlaw veteran tell his biglaw friend that he’s glad he is to have him on the case since he just isn’t a good enough to handle it by himself.
Now I’m not a lawyer, and all I know about criminal defense is what I learned by reading books and blawgs, so I can’t rule out he possibility that a really successful biglaw partner could be better at criminal defense than a ten-year veteran…but I don’t know any criminal defense lawyers who would believe it, let alone say it out loud.
(In the next book, he announces that his new firm only defends innocent clients, has no trouble getting an organized crime figure to testify to a motive for killing the victim, and gets the friendliest prosecutor in the world to run fingerprints for him. I guess it could happen.)
The other author’s first book begins with a decent criminal defense story, but in the second book the protagonist leaves criminal law and joins the D.A.’s office. This is a disaster for the character: As a criminal defense lawyer, his moral outrage at his clients’ crimes was a source of tension — coming up with a clever trick for evading the death penalty for a child murderer is not quite a thrilling legal victory because it was in service of a child murderer — but as a prosecutor, it just makes him seem like a self-righteous ass.
And when the defense lawyer physically assaults someone who threatens his family, it’s an exciting character moment because it’s a crime that could end his career, but when he does it as a prosecutor, with a cop along to back him up, he just comes across as a lawless authoritarian thug. The author gave him nice kids and a Wife With a Serious Illness to make him more sympathetic, but it doesn’t work: About half-way through I started hoping the satanists would kill him.
All this has me thinking about just what I want to see in a good legal thriller:
(1) It has to be about a trial. I’m not interested in some John Grisham nonsense about a lawyer who gets caught up in a conspiracy or a political thriller about a lawyer running for public office. I don’t want to read a story about a lawyer. I want to read a story about a lawyer trying a case.
Technically, the trial doesn’t even have to happen, the case could resolve before it gets to that step, but I want the story to be governed by the logic of how a lawyer takes a case to trial. I’m fascinated by the struggles that result from interplay of lawless criminality, the logic of proving a case, and the rules of the courtroom. I like the way seemingly small changes in the evidence can make or break a case. I like seeing how lawyers think about cases and the difference between what is true and what can be proven.
One of the best examples of this is in Turow’s Presumed Innocent. (Spoiler for something that happens early in the book.) Rusty Sabitch has been accused of murdering a woman he’s having an affair with. There’s a bit of evidence against him, but his lawyer points out something interesting: Sabitch may have been having an affair with the victim, but the prosecution has no proof that the affair ever happened, and thus they can’t provide a motive to the jury. The prosecutor’s accusations are false in fact, but the weakest part of the case is that they can’t prove something which happens to be completely true. I love stuff like that.
(2) The story has to be a mystery. The lawyers may be more concerned with what can be proven than with what really happened, but I want to know. If it’s a murder case, at least part of the story should involve the mystery of who actually committed the murder. No matter what the genre — science fiction, fantasy, legal thriller — I always like stories with an element of mystery.
(3) As a consequence of my first two preferences, the story probably has to be told from the defense point of view. If the protagonist is the prosecutor, it’s hard to have a whodunnit because the prosecutor should know whodunnit: It’s the guy he’s prosecuting, right? Otherwise he’s not really the good guy in the story. (Sometimes the criminal investigation can be told from the prosecutor’s point of view, but that’s really more of a police procedural than a legal thriller.)
(4) Even though there’s a mystery, and a killer to be found, there should still be lots of fascinating legal stuff — tricky points of law, thorny ethical conundrums, and good cross-examinations. I love it when a lawyer takes seemingly devastating testimony and picks it apart in a surprising way, or when he chases after some small details and shows how they are hiding a giant discrepancy. And I love seeing how these twists and turns affect the case.
This means, however, that the state’s case can’t be too good. Some authors like to ramp things up by having the defendant discovered at the scene of the crime, with the victim’s blood all over him, and the murder weapon in his hands, all after threatening to kill the victim in front of witnesses. And he was so high on drugs that he can’t remember how he got there.
That sure sets a challenge for the hero, but it’s a challenge he can really only overcome one way: By finding the real killer. That means all the trial preparation and even the trial itself will take a back seat to the search for the killer. The legal thriller becomes a procedural mystery.
So, any suggestions? Or would any of the lawyers reading this like to try writing one? Go ahead. You know you’re a storyteller at heart. I’ll bet you’d do great.
Addendum: While writing this, I found this post, which included reading recommendations from Steven Molo and (in the comments) Mark Bennett. They tend to be more historic than contemporary, but I’ll have to check them out.