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Writing Legal Thrillers

Why do we -- and here I mean both readers and authors -- seem to have such a fascination with the sub-genre of mystery now known as "legal thrillers?" It’s my belief that as citizens in a democratic society, we’re right to want an understanding of how and why our government can order another citizen to provide testimony, pay money, relinquish children, even to be imprisoned or put to death. And we also find, I think, that the best such thrillers are written by men and women with experience in the field.

I was a trial attorney for five years and a law professor for seventeen more. While most of my published fiction has dealt with John Francis Cuddy, a private investigator in Boston, many of the thus-far thirteen books in that series involve issues I faced as a trial attorney. Some examples are representing reporters who refuse to reveal confidential sources (YESTERDAY’S NEWS), the tragedy of the battered wife in apparently "upper-class" marriages (SWAN DIVE), and revenge killings of male divorce attorneys by disgruntled husband/opponents (THE ONLY GOOD LAWYER). Other novels have explored experiences I had as a law professor, such as the Dr. Kevorkian assisted-suicide question (RIGHT TO DIE) and young female law graduates being targeted by the very criminal defendants they represent (THE STALKING OF SHEILAH QUINN). Accordingly, this sub-genre of "legal thriller" has been on my mind for a while, and I’d like to elaborate some reasons for its popularity that go beyond the vague justification that "beauty lies in the eye of the beholder."

Historically, of course, there were many mystery novels written by and about attorneys. Erle Stanley Gardner in this country and Michael Gilbert in Great Britain come easily to mind. Publishing houses and bookstores just never "sub-categorized" these works under a separate label such as "legal thrillers." In addition, many of us in the postwar baby-boom generation grew up reading Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and watching Gardner’s best-known lawyer-protagonist, Perry Mason (played wonderfully on television by the late, great Raymond Burr). Finally, there were a number of substantial real-life legal cases to focus our minds on the justice system and the roles of attorneys: the Army-McCarthy hearings in the fifties, the Manson family trials in the sixties, and the Watergate Senate/House proceedings in the seventies, the last broadcast nearly unabridged to a mesmerized nation.

Yet, despite this rich history, it wasn’t until 1987 that Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT "reinvented" the legal thriller. Turow had written a very popular journal of his Harvard Law School matriculation a decade earlier called ONE-L. I’d graduated from there three months before Turow began his first year, and so I read that earlier work. Because he’d captured remarkably well what the experience of being a first-year student had been like, I bought his new "lawyer-novel," and, finishing it, I was very impressed by both his story and his skill. Then, a few years later, John Grisham garnered Stephen-King status with his second book, THE FIRM, and the sub-genre of legal thrillers was off and running. Gracing national and regional bestseller lists in the last ten years have been works by Jay Brandon, Lia Matera, William Bernhardt, Perri O’Shaughnessy, Paul Levine, Lisa Scottoline, Philip Margolin, Barbara Parker, and Steve Martini.

So, why the renewed fascination with this field? As suggested above, I think one answer is that most people who aren’t lawyers have a genuine curiosity about how the law works (I’ll contrast this in a moment with how the law doesn’t work). However, it’s pretty hard for even an intelligent layperson to pick up a scholarly treatise on some aspect of legal doctrine and try to stay awake, much less enjoy the time as it passes. Also, the treatises are typically written by lawyers or law professors for other members of that sorority/fraternity, and so much of the potentially interesting parts are obscured by insider jargon. The beauty of the legal thriller is that the author writing the novel must also orient the reader on the law driving the plot. In the real world of litigation, I did the same thing in trying to explain a complicated case, often told to the "audience" (of jurors) through "actors" (or witnesses) of varying "theatrical" (or testimonial) skill. In other sub-genres of crime fiction, the author (say, Tess Gerritsen) of a medical thriller explains a surgical procedure or the author (say Tom Clancy) of a techno thriller reveals the capabilities of a fighter-bomber. Put simply, the typical layperson wouldn’t pick up a textbook on anatomy or aerodynamics to laboriously obtain the same information.

I said I’d contrast this curiosity about how the law works with situations in which the law doesn’t work very well. Most non-attorneys have experienced--either directly or vicariously through family and friends--glitches within the justice system. I’ve explored a number of these in my John Cuddy books, with the private investigator being dragooned into helping a Boston mobster find out who killed his daughter because the police weren’t very "interested" (SHALLOW GRAVES) or searching for the missing son of a judge when the father doesn’t seem to want his own child returned to him (BLUNT DARTS). However, by definition, a private investigator novel isn’t going to spend most of its running time in a courtroom setting, and so while my Cuddy novels can orient the reader on a legal issue, the books for the most part don’t dwell on that issue. By contrast, I’ve found I can use my legal experience--both from practice and teaching--in writing "pure" legal thrillers. Let me provide a few examples, beginning with the above-mentioned THE STALKING OF SHEILAH QUINN.

In this novel, Sheilah Quinn is a defense attorney representing Arthur Ketterson, a rich, young eccentric accused of killing Jessica Giordano, a woman he was dating. Sheilah needs the retainer Arthur can pay, because her own father is in a nursing home, and therefore a terrible cash drain. Sheilah’s law partner, a retired judge named Etta Yemelman, is concerned for her and leery of her client, whom a male judge named Roger Hesterfield has let out on bail as a way of "hitting on" Sheilah and "tweaking" the district attorney on the case, Peter Mendez, who is running for state attorney general. Virtually everyone ignores the victim’s parents, Rudy and Rhonda Giordano, except for a dedicated African-American homicide investigator named Frank Sikes. And, through an ironic wink of fate, Rudy Giordano is the general contractor who "won" the bid to build the county’s new courthouse and demolish the old one after the trial of his own daughter’s accused murderer is concluded within it.

The concept of a current client "stalking" a criminal defense attorney arose from my time on the faculty at New England. I taught mainly litigation courses: Civil Procedure, Evidence, Modern Remedies. During classes, though, I referred to both my law-practice experiences and incidents from my time as a Sheriff’s Officer and a Military Police Lieutenant. After graduation, a number of my former female students came back to me, seeking my advice on clients who wanted a "personal," and not merely "professional," relationship. The clients would be parked outside the attorney’s residence as she left for work or leave a rose with the law firm’s receptionist while the attorney was at lunch.

As the fictional Arthur Ketterson stalks Sheilah Quinn using "tips" he learned while "jailing" before his trial, I also try to explore these troubling issues in the legal system. How can a defense attorney turn to the authorities for help when she suspects the very client she’s honor-bound to defend against the authorities is in fact coming after her? Especially if, given Sheilah’s need for money to maintain her father, she can’t very well privately approach--or even officially reproach--the judge sexually harassing her. Plus, when a prosecutor/politician is neglecting a current case to run for higher office, who is championing the victim’s family in its quest for the "justice" to which the police detective believes the survivors are entitled? And, what if all the while the victim’s father has to spend his days "building" the very system that he believes cheats him of such "justice?"

In some of my later legal thrillers, I’ve used a pseudonym, "Terry Devane," partly because my own name has been so associated with the private-eye novel over the last twenty years. Through the Devane books, I’ve tried to explore controversial legal issues from different viewpoints as well. In the first novel in the series, UNCOMMON JUSTICE, Mairead O’Clare (pronounced "Muh-RAID) is a young, Irish-American attorney who quickly becomes disillusioned by her job in a large corporate law firm. She decides to throw in with an older, Jewish solo practioner, Sheldon Gold, who specializes in criminal defense work. Their first case together involves representing a self-anointed Irish "hermit" accused of beating another homeless man to death along Boston’s Charles River. The problem for Mairead and Shel?: Their client appears to be innocent but refuses to help them with his defense.

In UNCOMMON JUSTICE, I present a criminal case with an uncooperative defendant, because as a trial attorney I’d faced the same problem in a divorce case with an uncooperative spouse. I also try to weave into the novel the ways in which different members of a legal team--including a perceptive secretary and a private investigator--struggle with the problem of helping someone who won’t help himself.

The second book in the Devane series, JUROR NUMBER ELEVEN, involves Mairead and Shel in the homicide defense of the older attorney’s lifelong friend, a Boston mobster named "Big Ben" Friedman. The prosecution believes he killed the young son of a Russian couple after the father and mother refused to buy "protection" for their modest shop. The jury acquits Friedman, but one juror paid unusual attention to Mairead during the trial, and, when that juror is found murdered, the police and prosecutor both believe it was the result of jury tampering--and juror silencing- on the part of Friedman AND his attorneys.

In JUROR NUMBER ELEVEN, I used as the foundation a civil case in which a female juror had stared at me for the entire trial, regardless of which attorney was inquiring or which witness was testifying. Frankly, I lost that case, but I always wondered what would have happened if I’d won: Would the other side have moved for a new trial? Would the judge have suspected something on my part regarding the juror and reported me to the bar authorities for investigation and possible discipline? And what if something HAD "happened" to that juror post-trial?

Finally, the upcoming (September, 2003) third novel in the Devane series, A STAIN UPON THE ROBE, involves Mairead and Shel in the dovetailing of two recent problems wracking our legal system. A superior court judge comes to them with a secret: She has been presiding over the worst of the "priest-rape" trials in Massachusetts, but she also began an affair with the handsome young law clerk assigned to help her do research on the case. The judge’s dilemma?: The clerk doesn’t show up for work at the courthouse one Monday morning, and she is afraid of being drawn into a gender-reversal version of the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy scandal from Washington, D.C. As the judge herself states to her attorneys, "I don’t want to put the same kind of ‘stain upon the robe’ of the judiciary that this priest has put on the robe of his church."

I wrote A STAIN UPON THE ROBE because I thought these dovetailing problems would make for a topically interesting novel, quite aside from its "legal thriller" aspects. I also found it tremendously broadening to put myself in the position of the various players in such a drama, especially given that the judge-- as a pillar of the judicial system--and her legal team can’t appear TOO interested in the disappearance of, after all, only a short-term court "employee."

I think it is ultimately this interweaving of the public aspects of the law with the impact they have on people’s private lives (witness the Simpson/Goldman tragedy) that gives the legal thriller sub-genre its extraordinary capacity to captivate both readers and writers. On the other hand, a non-lawyer friend of mine has a different, more cynical assessment: Given that there are over a million attorneys in this country, and that many of them claim to be unhappy practicing law, courtroom books are simply being bought up in huge numbers by frustrated lawyers seeking a "primer" for learning the "trick" of becoming successful novelists.

Which unfortunately forces me to admit that the popularity of legal thrillers might flow less from "the eye of the beholder" justification and more from "the grass is always greener" one.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article, copyright by Jeremiah Healy, appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine

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