Development of the genre

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

One work often cited as a precursor to the modern legal novel is Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book), which centers on a civil trial that lasts years in the Court of Chancery and eventually eats up the profits of the estate over which the legal dispute is centered. The work is populated with lawyers; however, the court proceedings are only one part of this lengthy critique of Victorian society, in which Dickens exposes some of the injustices of the legal system. Other British novelists of the nineteenth century, notably Wilkie Collins, also wrote fiction in which the law figures prominently. Among the first American writers to pay special attention to the law and lawyers was Melville Davisson Post. Post, an attorney who turned to writing fiction for diversion, in the 1890’s began publishing stories featuring Randolph Mason, an unscrupulous lawyer who makes use of trickery and legal loopholes for his clients’ benefit. A decade later, Post created a new persona, Uncle Abner, whose knowledge of the law matched Randolph’s but whose moral character and sense of justice fostered a more idealized image of the legal profession. The popularity of Post’s work suggests that the public was interested in stories about the law if these featured sharply drawn protagonists and intricate plots.

In the early decades of the twentieth century a number of writers tried their hand at legal fiction, borrowing many conventions of plotting and characterization from the detective novel. In 1926, Frances Noyes Hart published what is generally considered the first courtroom drama, The Bellamy Trial. Authors such as H. C. Bailey, initially a successful British mystery writer in the style of Dorothy Sayers, moved into the realm of the legal novel. Works by writers such as Englishmen Edgar Lustgarten, R. Austin Freeman, and Henry Cecil and American Harold Q. Masur were among hundreds that reached a modest but devoted audience.

One of the most important contributions to the development of legal fiction was made by Erle Stanley Gardner. His 1933 novel The Case of the Velvet Claws introduced readers to Perry Mason, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in defending murder suspects who appear guilty...

(The entire section is 920 words.)