There are few moments in life as dramatic and as choreographed as the announcement of a jury verdict. Although getting to this point can take years, even decades, everything comes down to a word, or two, uttered in seconds, that will decide a person’s fate. So it’s no surprise that in fiction, the legal thriller continues to capture readers’ attention, kept fresh by more than a quorum of authors—including those not named Turow, Connolly, or Grisham. Here, we profile 11 writers with courtroom dramas on the 2015 docket.
Every Fifteen Minutes (Apr.) and Corrupted (Oct.), both St. Martin’s Perennial bestseller Scottoline’s Rosato & DiNunzio books are perhaps the only series of legal thrillers to feature an all-female law firm; apart from the legal aspects of the plot, the novels examine competition among the attorneys and the changes in their friendships over time.
Priors Numerous novels including the previous two in the Rosato & DiNunzio series: Accused (2013) and Betrayed (2014)
Evidence Corrupted, Scottoline’s third Rosato & DiNunzio book, deals with a victim of a shocking real-life case—Pennsylvania’s Kids-for-Cash judicial corruption scandal, in which judges got kickbacks for sentencing juveniles to privately run prisons.
Testimony Given that “so many people get their idea about what the law is from novels,” Scottoline says, “it’s really incumbent upon those of us who are lawyers to be accurate. I write according to the exact legal procedure and law, and I cite real cases in my novels. It’s quite a challenge, but that’s what makes it interesting for me as an author. ” As for her Rosato & DiNunzio series, Scottoline is grateful that fewer readers now ask, “Can you really have a law firm composed of all women?” The increase in female attorneys in legal thrillers, she says, “allows for protagonists to be more richly characterized, as people who have homes, families, and children, or other lives outside courtrooms.”
Fox Is Framed (Mysterious, Apr.)
Smith’s Leo Maxwell series combines elements of the hardboiled PI novel with the legal thriller, alternating between the street and the courtroom; the first book, Bear Is Broken, won a Shamus Award. The relationship between Leo, his brain-damaged older brother, and their ex-con father is the heart of the series.
Priors Bear Is Broken (2013) and Lion Plays Rough (2014)
Evidence Smith’s third mystery squarely confronts Leo’s mother’s death, which was in the background in the earlier books. Although his father has been behind bars for more than 20 years for that murder, evidence of prosecutorial misconduct leads to his release and the reopening of that case.
Testimony “Too many writers make the mistake of treating courtroom scenes as mere exposition,” Smith says. “For the novel to work as a novel, these scenes have to dramatize the key conflicts of the story. The opening statement does not merely provide the reader with a summary of the facts—rather, it serves to dramatize the fears and passions of the lawyer who delivers it. Similarly, cross-examination needs to be not merely about what is said, but about the conflict between the lawyer’s desire to depict events one way and the witness’s desire to tell a different story, as well as the internal conflicts at stake for each.” (For more from Smith, see “Why I Write,” page 40.)
Grant of Immunity (e-book, Jan.)
Holms is the pseudonym of a judge in Los Angeles who has also worked as defense attorney and as prosecutor. He self-published Grant of Immunity, his fiction debut.
Evidence In this intricately plotted novel of suspense, L.A. judge Daniel Hart is confronted by a cop he’d seen commit a vicious murder decades before, but whom he was too scared to implicate.
Testimony Holms regards the courtroom as the perfect backdrop for a thriller. “It’s where tempers fly and tensions flare. It’s where the human condition is tested, the place where people unravel and try to become whole again as they defend their own versions of what they perceive to be the truth.” He plans a series of novels with a judge (not necessarily Hart) as the lead, noting that judges are often secondary figures in legal thrillers, and he intends to counter public perceptions that judges are “cold, aloof, impatient, rude, and punitive.”
Allegiance (Regan Arts, June)
Constitutional law professor Roosevelt, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter in the 1990s, has an insider’s view of the inner workings of the District.
Priors In the Shadow of the Law (FSG, 2005)
Evidence A decade after his debut novel, Roosevelt sets his new book during WWII, a time when U.S. anxiety about the enemy within trumps civil liberties. His hero, Cash Harrison, ends up in the thick of the debate about human rights when he clerks for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, after failing his Army physical, but that job proves much less sedate than he’d bargained for.
Testimony Roosevelt believes the issues he tackles in his historical thriller exemplify an evolution in the genre. “I think we’re seeing a trend away from criminal law and toward the way law regulates other relationships—family law, civil law. Law doesn’t enter our lives just in response to violence or bad behavior; it also underlies our normal existence—it’s the invisible track on which our everyday lives run. And I think there’s more interest in that—law as the ordinary condition of life, not the extraordinary response to unusual events.”
Devil’s Bridge (Dutton, Aug.)
In addition to writing fiction, Fairstein was chief of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan DA’s office for two decades, where she was the prosecutor in the so-called Preppy Murder trial and a number of other high-profile cases.
Priors 16 previous Alex Cooper thrillers, beginning with 1996’s Final Jeopardy
Evidence Devil’s Bridge offers a dramatic change for longtime fans of Fairstein’s alter ego, Manhattan assistant DA Alex Cooper. Fairstein teases that something happens to Alex as she’s beginning the trial of a sex trafficker; her narration is interrupted, and the book shifts perspective to that of the other main character in the series, NYPD homicide detective Mike Chapman, for the first time in any of the books.
Testimony “The adage ‘write what you know’ made a lot of sense to me,” says Fairstein, referring to her 30 years as a prosecutor. “There has been such radical reform related to sex crimes, domestic violence, human trafficking, and stalking since I came to the law. It’s exciting to show it through a fictional lens.”
Losing Faith (Gallery, Apr.)
Mitzner is the head of the litigation department at Pavia & Harcourt in midtown Manhattan, the firm where Sonia Sotomayor practiced before she was appointed to the bench.
Priors A Conflict of Interest (2011) and A Case of Redemption (2013)
Evidence In Mitzner’s third standalone legal thriller set in New York City, a prominent defense attorney, Aaron Littman, is blackmailed into representing the most hated man in America, a blend of Mafia don, radical terrorist, and Madoff-like Ponzi schemer.
Testimony “The legal system is like the ultimate sporting event, with two competitors going at it,” Mitzner says. “But the stakes [can be] as high as they get—life and death.” He believes that readers are much more savvy about the legal system than ever, making it “a challenge for writers to keep coming up with things that are new and exciting.”
The Verdict (Pegasus, Dec.)
Stone, who is half Haitian and half Scottish, believes that he’s the only Anglo-Haitian legal thriller writer around. The Verdict has been optioned for a TV series in the U.K. by the production company behind Foyle’s War.
Priors Mr. Clarinet (Harper, 2007; The King of Swords (Harper, 2008); Voodoo Eyes (Sphere, 2011)
Evidence A London legal clerk, Terry Flynt, has to help defend a multimillionaire charged with the murder of a young woman found in his hotel suite.
Testimony Stone’s experience clerking at the Old Bailey a decade ago as part of the defense team on several murder trials gave him the idea for The Verdict. “Clerks and those working at the lower end of the justice system are quasi-invisible,” he says. “And no one sees more and goes further than someone you don’t notice.”
The Enemy Inside (Morrow, May)
Martini brings a diverse professional background to his books, having served as an administrative law judge and supervising hearing officer, as a legislative representative for the State Bar of California, and as special counsel to the California Victims of Violent Crimes Program.
Priors A dozen books in the Paul Madriani series, from 1992’s Compelling Evidence (Putnam) to 2011’s Trader of Secrets (Morrow), plus a few standalone titles and others series
Evidence In the 13th outing for Paul Madriani, the defense attorney and his partner have emerged from a year as federally protected witnesses. With their practice in tatters, the pair accept a drunk driving case that ends up being much more than just a DUI.
Testimony Compressing time so a lengthy trial fits within the pages of a novel can be difficult, Martini says, but “one way to float the story is with humor. Funny things happen in courtrooms. The novelist who can exploit them in realistic fashion in fiction and do it with flair often has a winning formula. Being accurate about the legal system is important, but when good fiction dictates that this may not be possible, a good laugh may cover your sleight of hand when you are forced to take some liberty.”
The Missing Piece (Forge, Apr.)
After two decades working in the New York State court system as a law clerk to two state supreme court justices and as a foreclosure mediator, Egan is an expert on New York State civil procedure.
Priors Writing as Conor Daly, three books in the Kieran Lenahan series (Kensington, 1995–1997); as K.J. Egan, Where It Lies (Minotaur, 2009), and as Kevin Egan, Midnight (Forge, 2013)
Evidence The Missing Piece centers on a civil suit about the ownership of a hoard of ancient Roman silver with a murky provenance.
Testimony Egan believes that while “civil law may not be as sexy or dramatic as criminal law, it offers a much wider range of issues.” His legal experiences range from banks suing one another for billions of dollars in the aftermath of the financial crisis to a father suing because his son was kicked off a travel soccer team.
The Bomb Maker’s Son (Prometheus Books/Seventh Street, June)
Rotstein’s unconventional series lead, Parker Stern, is a top trial lawyer, now stricken with debilitating stage fright every time he walks into a courtroom.
Priors Corrupt Practices (2013) and Reckless Disregard (2014)
Evidence In his latest outing, Stern is approached by a longtime fugitive from justice seeking a vigorous defense against charges that he planted a bomb that killed four people.
Testimony Rotstein, whose 35 years as an attorney have focused on the entertainment industry, tries to “go as closely as possible to the line between realism and implausibility without crossing it. And fortunately for writers of legal drama, if not for those involved in the legal system, a lot of crazy things happen in real-life lawsuits.”
Injustice (Atria/Emily Bestler, Sept.)
Goodman, who grew up in New England, boasts a résumé among the most varied in the genre: it includes stints as a dog-sledder, time on a Bering Sea crabber, child-welfare work in Alaska, and service with the U.N. in Nairobi.
Priors Indefensible (2014)
Evidence When someone close to federal prosecutor Nick Davis is murdered, the attorney ends up in an unfamiliar role in the criminal justice system. Goodman’s intricate plot tackles such current issues as the validity of DNA identifications and false confessions.
Testimony Goodman views the U.S. legal system as a “great metaphor for life. It has judgment, humor, anguish, guilt, innocence, suspense, redemption, and, of course, the existential trauma of hapless actors finding themselves at the vortex of nightmarish events.” Novels set in federal prosecutors’ offices and in the courtroom, he says, give readers “an insider’s peek” into an esoteric world.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.
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