The legal thriller is one of my favorite genres of crime fiction. Legal thrillers let me into the world of courtrooms, suits, lawyers, paralegals, and their innocent, not so innocent, and some down-right shady clients. It’s in the legal thriller that we get a chance to see the justice system at work. The newspaper can tell us what happened. A legal thriller can tell us the stories and characters behind the possible headline. Allegedly.
The authors set many of their legal thrillers in a courtroom. They take a case after the police or investigators have completed their work and then we watch them take it through court. Often, it’s when the case is being tried that new evidence comes up. Think of the lawyer in the light-gray suit, Matlock.
But showing the courtroom isn’t necessary. In Marcia Clark’s Guilt by Association, Los Angeles D. A. Rachel Knight is a prosecutor who becomes involved in her colleague’s murder. We don’t see her take the case to trial, but we do watch as she investigates and interacts with the people involved.
Key Elements of a Legal Thriller
A good thriller needs a worthy protagonist. We don’t have to like them, but we need to respect them. They should be ethically sound, or if not, there is a logical reason when they cross the line. If they are always corrupt, then the story may be better categorized as noir.
Like all thrillers, the reader expects the suspense to build to where they stay up later than they wanted. The pace should start fast and quicken as new information and dangers pop up.
Of course, it should give us a peek into the legal system, whether it’s in a local system, the United States Federal Judicial System, the United Kingdom, or other countries. How is justice determined and is it equal for all people? Some country’s legal systems run on corruption.
And there should be some type of twist. My Cousin Vinny comes to mind. Joe Pesci’s character’s cousin is being tried for murder and it is looking bad. Then the out-of-place lawyer discovers the proof that his cousin’s car wasn’t the one involved. I can still envision the scene with Marisa Tomei in the witness box. (I know. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ve completely lost you. But you will thank me when you see it.)
My first thoughts go to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. “Judge, if I may.”
Gardner was an attorney whose first Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Velvet Claws, came out in 1933, The author built his reputation on being the champion for the underdog. He wrote his books after a full day of practicing law. He churned out 4000 words each night and completed 81 Perry Mason novels. I wonder how many of those were typed by Della.
But people have always been interested in how their legal or ruling systems worked. A very early court case can be seen in Shakespeare’s A Merchant in Venice.
A classic legal thriller is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a required read for many students. The book, published in 1960, was loosely based on Lee’s own father who was a lawyer.
Possibly the first British detective novel was written by Wilkie Collins, a friend and mentee of Charles Dickens. He wrote a series of stories for All The Year Around from November 1859 to August 1860 which became the novel, The Woman in White. CrimeReads states that he was the first to bring together several of the elements necessary in a thriller, an innocent person, a conspiracy, suspense, the detective, and the legal system.
One of the most popular writers in all literature is John Grisham. Grisham is a former Mississippi attorney who annually seems to put out at least one best seller each year. He said, “Though Americans distrust the profession as a whole, we have an insatiable appetite for stories about crimes, criminals, trials, and all sorts of juicy lawyer stuff.” I think he has us pegged.
His first novel, A Time To Kill, came out in 1989 but didn’t get much attention. Then he came out with the chart topping The Firm in 1991. Since then, he has been a regular on the top ten sellers each year.
Another popular writer is Lisa Scottoline. She clerked for judges in Pennsylvania and later became a litigator in Philadelphia. Her thirty books include Look Again and Don’t Go. She has served as the president of Mystery Writers of America and has over 30 million books in print. Her popular series, Rosata & Associates, is about women who are partners in a law firm.
As you can tell by looking at a recent list of best sellers, legal thrillers are still very popular. And with more authors stretching the limits of the genre, they will continue to let us peep in the window of the legal system to see its heroic, as well as its seedier, sides. And I, for one, am willing to put back my bedtime to see what happens next.
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