The Legal Novel Analysis

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...

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The modern legal thriller

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Although practicing attorneys had been writing novels about the law for decades, Scott Turow raised the profile of the legal novel with the publication of Presumed Innocent in 1987. Set in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, Turow’s intricate plot revolves around the efforts of assistant district attorney Rusty Sabich to help identify the killer of fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus. Because Sabich had secretly been having an affair with Polhemus, he ends up being the prime suspect, and much of the business of the novel is taken up with legal maneuverings by Sabich and his defense attorney to demonstrate his innocence. The plot is further complicated when the judge selected for the trial is found to have had an affair with the deceased as well. Readers are never certain whether Sabich is being framed or is really the killer, and even in the final scene, when there are strong hints as to who really committed the murder, there is only a presumption of Sabich’s innocence.

Turow employed his considerable experience as a prosecutor to give the novel an exceptional aura of authenticity; his intricate descriptions of the legal process are reminiscent of police procedural novels that lay out the steps law-enforcement officials take to bring criminals to justice. Further, within the conventions of the thriller, Turow proves capable of depicting characters with exceptional subtlety, giving readers a sense that these men and women are not simply cardboard heroes and villains but are people one might meet in real life.

Turow followed Presumed Innocent with a series of best-selling legal thrillers and remained a favorite among devotees of the genre, but he almost immediately lost to John Grisham his place as the most celebrated writer of legal fiction. A Mississippi attorney who had a brief career in that state’s senate, Grisham began writing during the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Bounds, J. Dennis. Perry Mason: The Authorship and Reproduction of a Popular Hero. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Scholarly analysis of the most famous fictional lawyer created during the twentieth century. Examines Mason as a cultural phenomenon, discusses key elements in the novels, and explores television and movie adaptations to explain the enduring appeal of this type of literary and visual entertainment.

Breen, Jon L. Novel Verdicts: A Guide to Courtroom Fiction. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999. Extensive survey of legal fiction published in the United States and Great Britain. Annotated entries for nearly eight hundred novels provide brief plot summaries and evaluations. Introduction outlines elements of courtroom fiction and suggests criteria for critical analysis.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “Law’s Labors Lost: The Lawyer as Hero and Anti-Hero.” New Republic, March 14, 1994. Outlines the elements of legal fiction and explains the sociological and psychological reasons for the rise of the genre in the late 1980’s. Supports general arguments with examples from several popular legal thrillers.

Macdonald, Andrew F., and Gina Macdonald. Scott Turow: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. Analysis of Turow’s fiction and his role in popularizing the legal novel. Includes a chapter on work that influenced Turow, including many key texts in the development of legal fiction in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Pringle, Mary Beth. John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Assessment of Grisham’s career as one of the most popular authors of legal thrillers. Includes a chapter on the development of the genre in the United States. Analyzes a number of Grisham’s novels.

_______. Revisiting John Grisham: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Continues Pringle’s analyses of Grisham’s works with an examination of the novels published from 1997.

White, Terry, ed. Justice Denoted: The Legal Thriller in American, British, and Continental Courtroom Literature. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Compendium on the genre that includes an essay outlining components of the legal thriller, synopses of nearly two thousand novels and stories, a brief bibliography of secondary sources, a glossary of legal terms frequently used in this form of fiction, an index of characters that recur in popular series of legal novels, and brief responses by legal novelists to questions about their craft.