Perry Mason. Atticus Finch. Sir Wilfred Robarts in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. John Grisham’s Reggie Love and Jake Brigance. When a fictional lawyer captures the passion and fire of the literary search for justice, readers cannot fail but be captivated. Even Nancy Drew’s father was a lawyer, remember?
Any crime fiction reader lusts for justice: for the good guys to win, and the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. In legal thrillers, it’s the lawyers that make that happen. But in my own The Murder List (Forge Books)—and in every real-life murder case—the question is: who are the good guys? Both sides think they deserve the good-guy label, right? The prosecutors are standing up for the system, putting criminals behind bars, protecting the public from nefarious lawbreakers. We’re the good guys, they’d tell you. But the defense attorneys are standing up for the rights of the individual, protecting the little guy, making sure the prosecution plays by the rules to allow an innocent-until proven guilty defendant a fair and just trial. So they think they’re the good guys, too.
These books will make not only make you love the law, but make you love lawyers—and understand them—no matter which side they’re on. But which ones are the good guys?
As fresh and surprising as the first time I read it, Presumed Innocent (FSG) is an absolutely riveting story. It is seminal and genre-making, luring you into the twisty back rooms of the justice system, making you rethink everyone’s story, and then in the end, will leave your jaw on the floor. Every modern legal thriller writer will tell you: this is the one they try to emulate. Even though they know this book—and Scott Turow—are firmly on legal thriller Mount Olympus.
So, the tagline of Thirteen (Flatiron Books) says it all. The serial killer is not on trial, he’s on the jury. I’ve got to say, any lawyer would know that this is a very unlikely thing to have occurred. And yet, somehow, Steve Cavanagh’s sleight of hand makes it seem… well, possible. That authorial juggling alone is enough to make this a terrific read. If you were a defense attorney, how would you have handled this?
David Ellis has written several terrific legal thrillers on his own, and now partners with the iconic James Patterson, who must be as big a fan as I am of Ellis’s skills with motivation and conflict—and his incredible talent for clever misdirection. In The Last Alibi (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), the nugget is the instant quicksand of lawyer-client privilege. This compelling legal journey takes the reader straight into the mind of a lawyer—both as a tough professional and as a vulnerable human being.
The Bellamy Trial (American Mystery Classics) is one of the very first legal thrillers ever written—maybe the first after Merchant of Venice. Reading this wonderful reissue is as delightful as watching The Thin Man or a Tracy and Hepburn movie. But at the core, Frances Noyes Hart’s twisty love-and-murder triangle is a fascinatingly close look at the legal system. I’m so pleased to see this is being brought back into the spotlight in a brand new edition. And yes, your honor, I even wrote the introduction to it.
Miracle Creek (Sarah Crichton Books) is Angie Kim’s tour de force in point of view—much of which takes place in a courtroom. It relentlessly keeps you guessing about what really happened, who killed who, and who was to blame. It’s a heartrending story of family loyalties, and what happens when a family’s life and expectations are caught in the legal wringer. Both gentle and terrifying, this is an innovative and brave new direction in the genre.
Every time I read The Verdict (Bantam Books), or watch the movie, I am struck by the forces at work, the clash of money and justice and power and honor. What brings sadsack Frank Galvin back from certain destruction is his intense sense of right and wrong. Even in the face of being trampled by the system. The courtroom scenes here are heartbreaking and compelling.
If you haven’t read Defending Jacob (Bantam Books), lucky you. William Landay’s meticulously written and infinitely surprising look at a family under siege after the son is accused of a terrible crime will make you rethink everything you know about legal thrillers and the law. And about families. Soon to be a television series, yes, but reading the book will only make the TV show more fun to watch.
This time of year, when there are still some vacation days remaining, is the perfect time to catch up on the riveting courtroom dramas—beloved classics and newly published alike—that you may have missed. So now: the verdict is in. Courtroom reading season is in session.