(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Lia Matera focuses on the psychology and sociology of the legal world. The mind-sets of district attorneys and defense lawyers are quite different. Her lawyers are shaped by what they practice, and she enjoys contrasting the attorney employed in commercial litigation with the one committed to labor unions. Her own interest is in how practicing these different kinds of law shapes personality. The process of becoming a certain kind of lawyer intrigues her as she probes the strengths and weaknesses of her characters. The lawyers become, she points out, a lot like their clients, which explains, in part, why they are attracted to certain sorts of law. It is the intersections of crime, the law, and the personalities of clients, lawyers, judges, and their cohorts that make Matera’s novels intriguing. In her own account of her decision to stop practicing law, she suggests that writing was the only way for her to obtain an overview of the legal system.

Matera’s novels tend to focus on single issues: She begins with the question “What do I care about now?” She has canvassed issues as different as pornography and unidentified flying objects (UFOs).

In an interview with Walter Sorrells, Matera clearly distinguished her writing from traditional thrillers: “I have a problem with the basic premise of most successful thrillers: that the system doesn’t work and justice can only be achieved through personal vengeance. . . . I hate to see popular fiction glorify yahooism and add more sparks to the American tinderbox.” Matera’s characters fumble their way toward understanding the crimes they are investigating, and what they learn, Matera implies, is only a part of the truth.

In both the Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma series, the main characters continue to develop—in Willa’s case from law school to corporate work to her involvement in cases beyond the scope of a conventional attorney, and in Laura’s case from her corporate law practice to the decision to go into business for herself. While Willa defends the poor and the indigent, Laura takes on unpopular clients and causes. The Jansson novels often present a satiric view of the law; the Di Palma novels are more acerbic about the criminal justice system. Critics have praised the interplay of Matera’s offbeat and amusing characters, her irreverent and witty style, her wry attitude toward the law, and her ingenious plots.

Where Lawyers Fear to Tread

The first novel in the Willa Jansson series, Where Lawyers Fear to Tread (1987), is set in San Francisco’s Malhousie Law School, an amusing name for an institution rather like the one Matera herself attended. Willa becomes acting editor-in-chief of her school’s law review after its editor has been murdered. When other students are murdered, Willa begins to investigate, inspired by her childhood reading of Nancy Drew. There are suspects galore, including other members of the law review and the faculty. Unlike Nancy Drew, however, Willa finds herself arrested and a suspect, thus setting a pattern that will be repeated in subsequent Jansson mysteries. The fierce competition for good grades and jobs and the pretentiousness of law school clearly owe something to Matera’s own experience.

A Radical Departure

In A Radical Departure (1988), Willa is working as a first-year associate for a San Francisco law firm that caters to the rich and the powerful when her boss dies from hemlock poisoning. Willa’s left-leaning mother is named in the boss’s will and...

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