Legal Thrillers

Legal Thrillers (Books)

By Benjamin Howell, who was an editorial assistant at CALIFORNIA LAWYER.

Some books are like boxes of chocolate. Pick up a slick paperback at a grocery store, and you won’t put it down until you’ve devoured the entire thing. If it’s any good, you might feel slightly sick, but with a sense of guilty pleasure. If it’s not, you probably just feel ill.

Popular fiction invariably comes in several familiar flavors: romance, mystery, thriller. The books grouped under the label legal thrillers are essentially remakes of an old staple of popular fiction, the detective story, set in the landscape of the American legal system. Hard-boiled defense attorneys play roles like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, saving helpless dames and thwarting villains in final showdowns. The genre experienced a rebirth in 1987 with Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and took off into the stratosphere of commercial publishing success with John Grisham’s novels. The standard plot of the legal thriller departs from the earlier forms by adding a twist to the straightforward premise of the detective story: Rather than recount a detective’s peregrinations from crime scene to criminal, the legal thriller usually begins with a character accused of a crime who must prove his innocence and find the real criminal or, more typically, hire an attorney to do it for him.

But something is missing in this genre, and it’s readily apparent in this year’s legal thrillers. A good legal thriller, convincingly told, makes you feel the outrage of injustice and sweat out a pending jury verdict. It creates, sustains, and, with a final flourish, dispels tension. But in an effort to provide quick, easy, and accessible entertainment, legal thriller authors rely too heavily on the formulaic plot, filling the story with uninspired scenes, unnecessarily graphic violence, prefabricated characters, and contrived themes-figuring that action and suspense alone can carry the weight of 300 pages of bad writing.

Merely rearranging the genre’s preexisting symbols and character types to set the plot in motion doesn’t provide the satisfaction of a truly great book. A good legal thriller transcends formula, is unique, and blossoms into something at once entertaining, familiar, and yet original. Popular plot lines can and ought to be a beginning point for artistry and innovation, and can help bridge the great divide between mass-market fiction and literature.

The seven books discussed here are touted by publishers as the hottest new titles in the season’s legal thriller crop. Six are by Americans, four male, two female. Four of the six Americans are or were lawyers. Although the authors try to separate their novels from the crowd, the similarities among the novels are striking. The books offer, for the most part, relatively exciting summer reads. Only one of the seven authors, Antonio Tabucchi, a professor in Italy, offers something more substantive.

Two debut novels written by attorneys-San Francisco attorney Sheldon Siegel’s Special Circumstances and Washington, D.C., lawyer Stephen Horn’s In Her Defense-are legally savvy but also illustrate how remarkably formulaic plot and character can be in this genre. Both are narrated in the first person by their protagonists, divorced defense attorneys who put their principles before their practice. Roguish and irreverent, they are burned-out hotshots who once played in the big leagues but now have to struggle on the lower rungs of the legal profession. They’re down on their luck when, by a stroke of fictional fortune, a high-profile murder case comes their way, and soon they’re back in the limelight.

Like the other male protagonists in this collection of legal fiction, these attorneys are tough guys who tried family life-and failed. A therapist tells Horn’s main character, “One day you’re in the jungle: heart thumping, glands secreting, terror, exhilaration, victory and defeat-living on the big scale, the ultimate competition. And you liked it. Then you turn around and it’s Saturday in the suburbs and you’re standing in some hardware store, comparing paint chips for the foyer, you and millions of other guys. The difference is you broke out of that store; you had to.” Horn’s protagonist is emblematic of the “everyman” type of hero who often plays the lead role in legal thrillers. The character has lived by the “rules of combat” in the courts, and now conventional life fits him like a straitjacket.

Both protagonists have ex-wives who are, to varying degrees, supportive. And though neither ex-wife needs the money, both characters think it’s a good thing to support their ex-wives: For example, the attorney in In Her Defense says, “The fact was they didn’t need my money at all, but they took it anyway…. She didn’t want to cut it and for all the difference the money could make to me, I didn’t either.” In Special Circumstances, the protagonist says, “Although Rosie probably doesn’t need the money from me, she’s absolutely right in demanding it…. [I]t’s better that I have a legal obligation to pay it to her.”

Each book also draws on cartoon-like caricatures of the pompous district attorney, the rough-hewn investigator, and the sage old legal expert. Admittedly, characterization is easier when it draws on recognizable stereotypes. The problem occurs when the author does nothing more. However, both authors try to tackle this problem by exaggerating these character types to the point that they become colorful-albeit hyperbolic-and memorable.

If plot ideally comes from character, it should come as no surprise that both Special Circumstances and In Her Defense come to essentially the same conclusions. The protagonists bring old secrets to the surface and deflect blame from their clients. In each novel, the big case not only revitalizes careers but also the lives of the lawyers: They grow a little wiser and at least tentatively reconcile with their ex-wives. The personal development of the protagonist is a subplot, but these subplots are like afterthoughts, haphazardly woven into the main plot of crime and detection.

More seasoned authors like John Lescroart, J. F. Freedman, Lisa Scottoline, and Perri O’Shaugnessy make valiant but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to transcend the genre’s formula by constructing unique and elaborate premises for their crime stories.In Lescroart’s eleventh legal thriller, Nothing but the Truth, he creates an unusual reason for an attorney to solve a murder in a weekend. The protagonist’s wife is jailed for refusing to reveal to a grand jury a secret told to her by a friend who is being investigated for the murder of his wife. The only way she can be released and remain silent is if the protagonist finds the real killer by the time the grand jury meets again. That the protagonist’s work schedule has made him like a stranger to his own family and that his wife is willing to stay in jail to protect her friend adds dramatic weight to the plot.

But Lescroart’s attempts to turn his tale of crime and detection into a commentary on family life are unconvincing. Though the main character states his fears that his wife has been unfaithful, such fears come off as transparent attempts to raise the stakes in the plot. At every opportunity, Lescroart contrasts his protagonist with the superdad who’s suspected of murder. In passages like this one, describing the suspect’s embrace of his own kids, Lescroart is anything but subtle: “[T]he kids went to him. He enveloped them both in his arms, in a strong and soothing fatherhood.” The author ultimately resorts to a dismissive resolution of the fatherhood subplot, which only adds to the superficiality of the theme.

J. F. Freedman’s theme is stated explicitly in his book’s title, Above the Law. When a botched Drug Enforcement Administration raid in Northern California ends with the curious death of a kingpin who was to be taken alive at all costs, the main character, a former prosecutor who starred in Freedman’s last book, is asked to prosecute. Freedman’s premise-the prosecution of a federal agent for the murder of a drug lord-works well to convey his theme that law enforcement is above the law. The characters are well drawn and the story well told. But the author gets tangled up in plot: The isolated, rural setting limits the number of possible culprits and makes it easy to see through Freedman’s camouflage of phony suspects.

Another common trait of this year’s legal thrillers is the explicit use of contemporary proper names and current events to lend authenticity to a story. In Above the Law, Attorney General Janet Reno orders the DEA raid, and a drug dealer witness “purportedly hung out with such luminaries as Puff Daddy and Eddie Murphy.”

By plucking current topics from the news, the authors attempt to lend dramatic weight to their works. For example, with scandals in the Los Angeles and New York police departments, police corruption in Above the Law makes for an especially timely issue. However, in these books the theme merely hangs there without insight or commentary.

Such is also the case with both Moment of Truth by Lisa Scottoline, whom the book jacket refers to as the “female John Grisham,” and Move to Strike by two sisters who write under the pen name Perri O’Shaugnessy. In both books, contemporary fears about juvenile crime are exploited. Both books feature women attorneys, and both plots center on a teenage girl charged with murdering a family member.

In Moment of Truth, the murder suspect is a teenage model who believes she’s killed her mother. Scottoline’s characterization of the teen doesn’t get much deeper than the painstaking prose of her physical description: “She had impossibly narrow hips and high, small breasts. Her crying jag had left her azure-blue eyes glistening with tears, tinged her upturned nose pink at its tip and caused her soft, overlarge mouth to tilt downward.”

The author’s contempt for youth shines through with passages like this one: “[H]e didn’t know when kids had changed, but they had, in his lifetime. They got to be empty inside; they didn’t care about anything. … They didn’t play ball in the street; they collected guns and shot each other.” Fears are exploited with unnecessary images of sadistic youth: “[H]e had listened to a punk tell him how he had tortured an old lady to death with a box cutter. The kid had looked stone bored when he told how he’d raped her postmortem.” Through subtle shadings of character and graphic portrayals of violence, Scottoline’s book is no different than the television tabloids.

The O’Shaugnessy sisters make their intentions abundantly clear on their Web site where they promote their new book, Move to Strike. Describing the novel’s suspected murderer, they write: “She lives in South Lake Tahoe. She’s sixteen, a vandal and a thief … with a showgirl mom and a missing dad. The girl is bad-and the DA wants her for murder. You’re going to love hating her.” In the book itself, the youth violence theme is more explicit. Arguing with another arrogant DA to keep the accused in the juvenile system, her lawyer pleads, “She’s a child!” The DA responds, “So were the assholes who blew away all those other children at Littleton.” The furor even makes the fictional press: “A long article over the weekend had heralded the arrival of a wave of evil young criminals right here in Tahoe. …”

Reading these topical books is like watching real-life tragedy on TV, which exploits our voyeuristic tendencies. But if that is all the author manages to do, in the end stereotypes are just reinforced, and current events seem as drastic and overwhelming as ever.Perhaps it takes an escape from the milieu of American legal fiction to find a thriller that, despite its faults, lives up to all that the form can hope to be. In The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, set in Portugal, Antonio Tabucchi offers a compelling and thoroughly unconventional read, exploiting the legal thriller formula to make cogent insights about the philosophy of law and popular culture’s fascination with sensational stories of crime and violence.

The book begins as a mystery should: with a corpse. But the novel immediately steps outside the formula by proceeding without the extra blood that would accompany an analogous scene in most American thrillers. The scene is tender and tragic instead of gory when an old Gypsy named Manolo discovers the corpse one morning.

Tabucchi reminds us that you can’t fudge good writing. His protagonist, Firmino, is a young reporter for a scandal tabloid who’d rather write about the influence of an obscure Italian author on the Portuguese postwar novel than be sent to the provincial town of Operto to report on the unfolding story of the headless corpse.

Firmino is like a detective hero, but as he begins to investigate, it becomes clear he is merely a medium for the mystery’s unfolding. Dona Rosa, the enigmatic owner of his pension, points Firmino to the characters who reveal the next part of the story and who are profiled in the overly dramatic accounts Firmino writes for the tabloid. Instead of spending countless pages laying out the detection, Tabucchi focuses on the characters and setting that surround the plot. And by revealing the mystery in Firmino’s dispatches, the modern day appetite for sensational stories contrasts vividly with the real tragedies and the gross injustices that lie behind this powerful story.

It is in the words of the character Loton, an old Portuguese aristocrat nicknamed for his resemblance to actor Charles Laughton, that the book’s wisdom is revealed. Loton, a lawyer, tells Firmino of his studies at UC Berkeley under the great philosopher of jurisprudence, Hans Kelsen. Kelsen’s theory of justice resembles an inverse pyramid wherein all laws ultimately claim validity from the Grundnorm, or basic norm that is accepted by a simple majority of the community. The irony of the theory is that its highest principles are the rules that most people agree with; essentially the lowest common denominator dictates prevailing morality. Loton says, “[T]his is a truly Kafkaesque thing, it’s the norm that ensnares us all.” He goes on to explain that during the Portuguese Inquisition, torturers used Christian morality to justify their actions. Blindly pointing up to a chain of agreement that ends with an abstract idea accepted by most people takes away individual moral responsibility-the Grundnorm can justify injustice.

Loton realizes it is fruitless to use rhetoric to oppose the Grundnorm and decides to “dump theory and put things into practice,” taking up his personal moral duty to defend the poor against injustice. He takes the case after it is revealed that a corrupt member of the national guard tortured Damasceno Monteiro to death. The book does not end with the satisfaction of justice achieved (the soldier is acquitted), but it does conclude with hope. Though the odds tower against him, Loton vows to continue fighting. Tabucchi provides no revenge; we don’t get to see the killer dying a well-deserved violent death. Instead, Tabucchi arrives at the conclusion that positive change must start with individual action and that injustice will persist so long as we take refuge in abstract moral posturing.

The book is also a commentary on the unceasing production and consumption of formulaic entertainment based on crime, violence, and stereotypes. At the most basic level, popular narrative will entertain the largest audience. Thus the Grundnorm of culture (like the Grundnorm of law) is the abstract idea of a lowest common denominator applied to popular taste, for which commercial culture is produced.

Then again, that sort of condemnation of “low” culture is hardly a recent trend. There is something powerful underlying the stories available as popular narrative entertainment, something that makes them universally translatable into other languages and cultures. But there is also the potential for misuse when real-life tragedy and violence are simply repackaged to be sold as entertainment. We become both numb to the violence and hungry for more. Similar to the balance that Loton has found between ideal and practice, there is no reason authors and artists can’t maintain an allegiance to their craft in addition to the demands of the marketplace. The legal thriller is a great formula for entertainment, but only when the formula is used as a starting point, a blank canvas to display unique and individual insights or skillful artistry. Otherwise, the books leave you feeling a bit sick and guilty, as if you just finished a whole box of chocolates.