What do you call 25 skydiving lawyers? SKÆT! If you have not heard this one, I would bet you have heard another or have a good lawyer joke that you love to tell. Have you heard the one about the lawyer who … the list is endless and no one loves to tell lawyer jokes more than lawyers!
Before I started writing legal thrillers, I asked myself why we love the law and what led to our fascination with lawyers, civil conflict stories, and those who involved people in issues of authority. I went in search of the origin of the genre and found a rich story with chills and excitement. I also discovered something particularly interesting about how people view lawyers through the development of these stories and through the lens of their personal touch to drama in the courtroom.
What is a legal thriller?
John Grisham, the most famous lawyer who writes in the genre, says, “You throw an innocent person in there, get them caught by a conspiracy, and you get them out.”
I think we need to include a bit of education about the law and its procedures, possibly a courtroom scene, and that about sums up the legal thriller. The story behind the development would take a book or two to tell. Here are the highlights.
Legal thriller story
As with all other genres, legal thrillers evolved. Modern readers probably think that this explosion of the genre is a recent phenomenon, but before Turow there was a story about lesser-known law writers. The predecessors were lawyers who collected genuine crime, case law, and litigation stories from eighteenth-century Europe, all of which formed the basis of the genre today.
As early as the middle of the 16th century, scandalous attempts were the focus of many printed stories and theater performances. The legal thriller took a huge step in development when a French lawyer, Francois Richer, wrote in the preface to Causes celebres: “I have made sure to arrange the material in such a way that the reader can not immediately see how a case ends and what verdict is handed down. He remains in a state of uncertainty during the development of the action, and in that way I think each case will become more gripping. The reader will remain curious up to the last page. “Adding this element of suspense, Richer created the template for the genre in its modern form.
Crime fiction culminated in a landmark work in 1841 with the publication in Grahams magazine of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, Edgar Allen Poe’s classic murder mystery with a detective. Logical reasoning provided the solution to the problem and is the central theme of the story rather than character or description. As the detective gathers evidence throughout the story, the reader can also deduce the solution. After Poe, sensational mystical stories appeared in all sorts of prints. Lawyer Abraham Lincoln, a great admirer of Poe, wrote a news story in 1846 entitled “The Trailor Murder Mystery” based on a case he defended in Illinois.
The genre is born
When Wilkie Collins’ books, The woman in white and The moonstone were published, they were more popular than a new Grisham novel in his heyday. Collins was a friend and student of Charles Dickens, who was also experimenting with legal thrillers at the time. Collins was the first to bring together the innocent person, a conspiracy, suspense, the detective, the justice system – in short, the characteristic legal thriller.
Anna Katherine Green, known as the mother of the American mystery novel, was the daughter of a famous criminal defense attorney. Her first book, The Leavenworth saga, 1878, was America’s first bestseller. Its overly dramatic method is almost comical today, but she was the first to introduce several plot devices, such as the rich man who was murdered just before he changes his mind, the hero lawyer who falls in love with his client, the use of forensic evidence, the body is found in the library and others.
In the early 20th century, one of the most famous and commercially successful American lawyers / writers was the Melville Davisson Post. His plots were simple and fast, leading to lots of the 1930s. His characters were lawyer / detectives, the first was Randolph Mason Corpus Delicti. Mason is a calm, collected, intelligent lawyer who advises his clients on how to avoid prosecution by using loopholes, even advising a client to commit murder and then defending him afterwards.
In the 1930s and 40s, Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason, was one of the best-selling writers ever, building a reputation as a champion of the underdog. He wrote after practicing law all day and struck out about 4,000 words each night to earn extra income. In 1921, he sold his first mystery story to a paper magazine, followed by several hundred. He wrote in hard-boiled, slangy, pulp style using quick actions, not characterization.
After several rejections, Gardner’s first novel, The case of the velvet claws, was published by Thayer Hobson, president of William Morrow & Co., who suggested that the author write Mason as a cartoon character. Twenty-one Perry Mason mysteries followed. According to critic Dennis Bounds, the formula for each Mason novel can be put into a single premise: “What if an innocent man or woman who has every reason to commit a murder has no more than a flimsy alibi to prove to the police, which he or she did not, is implicated and arrested for the murder and gets lawyer Perry Mason to defend him or her …? With these elements as a springboard, the plot continues in a trajectory towards the climatic moment – usually at a trial – where the actual killer is revealed.
Around the time of Mason, many legal thrillers were born. Cornelius Grafton, father of the best-selling author Sue Grafton, used Kentucky before WWII as a framework for multifaceted plots, procedural maneuvers, and a fast-paced pace of attention to detail.
In the 1950s and 60s, the outselling of all legal thrillers was the first of the truly realistic American courtroom dramas, Anatomy of a murder. It was written in 1958 by Michigan Supreme Court Justice, John D. Voelker publishing as Robert Traver. He pitted a hero in a small town against a hired prosecutor in the trial against a disliked man who may have defended his wife’s honor with murder. Travers raised the bar for legal thrillers with his attention to proper legal procedure and a memorable finale. In 1960, To kill a choke by Harper Lee was published on his own iconic bookshelf.
Modern legal writers
In 1987, Scott Turow’s Presumed innocent shot up in the legal thriller market. George Higgins, a former Boston District Attorney, wrote Eddie Coyle’s friends, 1972, made popular by the Robert Mitchum film. And of course, the mighty John Grisham took the genre to a whole new level of popularity in the 1990s with “The” novels and movies: The company, the client, the halletc., then circled back in popularity for attention to his first novel, A time to kill.
Today, Grisham continues to lead the pack alongside Michael Connelly and his Mickey Haller series followed by Diane Capri, John Ellsworth, Mark Pryor, Lisa Scottoline, Alafair Burke, Kenneth Eade, William Landay, Robin James, Robert Dugoni, Marcia Clark, Larry A The winter list goes on and on – suggesting that it is much more interesting to write about the law than to practice it. A look back in a few years will show how the genre has evolved as these new writers make their mark on the legal thriller.
This is how lawyers are seen today
As these stories have evolved over time, the view of the lawyer in society has also gone through a development. At the time of Atticus Finch, Perry Mason and before, lawyers were respected and often honored as pillars of society. Now, views on lawyers and their roles in society span a wide range, which is reflected in the genre today. Steve Martini, and those like him, write about lawyers who lose sleep over their client’s problems and argue heroically before being captivated by juries. George V. Higgins and others portray a cruel street lawyer in their legal thrillers who are only one step ahead of their clients outside of prison.
Lawyers seem to be divided into a schizophrenic division of good and evil depending on the reader and their experience of the law in reality. One thing is for sure, everyone knows at least one good lawyer joke, and no one calls their mother when they are in big trouble – they call their lawyer.
* Thanks to Marlyn Robinson (1947-2014), Lawyer Librarian at the University of Texas School of Law, for some of the above references and for her creation of the legal novel section in the stacks of the Tarlton Law Library.