Our thanks to Alafair Burke for sharing her thoughts on the best and worst ("hearsay!") of legal thrillers and courtroom drama. Burke's latest novel is All Day and a Night, which again features her NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher. Megan Abbott (The Fever) called it “A masterfully plotted, psychologically complex thriller."
As a former Deputy District Attorney in Portland, Burke knows a thing or two about the law; she now teaches at Hofstra Law School. (And as the daughter of James Lee Burke, she also knows a thing or two about the written word). Burke's next project is a first-ever collaboration with Mary Higgins Clark. Their co-authored novel, The Cinderella Murder, is coming in November.
In 2004, a major editor at a major publisher told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature.
Fast-forward ten years, and books featuring lawyers are thriving. Perhaps not coincidentally, publishers have also found a way to market books about lawyers without pigeonholing them as “legal thrillers” or “courtroom dramas.”
I first started fantasizing about writing a novel because of my frustration at the portrayal of attorneys in fiction, especially crime fiction. I was a huge fan of the genre, but found myself wanting to throw books across the room when attorneys arrived on the page, yelling “hearsay!” and “calls for speculation!” Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.
In real life, few lawyers go to court. They delve into families, negotiating pre-nups, adoptions, and divorces. They merge and separate corporate entities. Even litigators spend a small percentage of their time in court. The vast majority of cases settle, which only happens after lawyers gather evidence, question witnesses, scour documents, and play chicken with their adversaries.
Michael Connelly understood this when he endorsed my debut novel by saying, “JUDGMENT CALLS expertly shows that the most gripping drama is not found in the courtroom but in the places where choices get made in the shadows cast by politics and corruption and human desires.”
In other words, when lawyers narrate a story, it’s still just a story, because lawyers are people too. Here are a few of my favorite books that show the real lives of lawyers, outside the courtroom.
The Firm, John Grisham
Though Grisham’s A Time To Kill is one of the best courtroom novels I’ve read, The Firm captures an altogether different world, expertly portraying the pressures placed upon a junior associate at an elite law firm.
Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow
Turning the genre on its head, Turow tells the story of a career prosecutor charged with murder. He also masters the use of a (possibly?) unreliable narrator. If you’re a fan of crime fiction, read this back-to-back with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and draw the parallels.
The Alexandra Cooper series, by Linda Fairstein (The most recent installment: Terminal City)
It’s no surprise that Fairstein, who as supervisor for the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office broke new ground in the prosecution of crimes against women, also broke new ground in the depiction of prosecutors in fiction. Through Alex Cooper, she shows that the power of the prosecutor is not in the courtroom, but in the nearly unreviewable discretion they exercise outside of it.
The Mickey Haller series, by Michael Connelly (The most recent installment: The Gods of Guilt)
Much as Fairstein depicts the out-of-court life of Alex Cooper, Connelly delves into the life of defense attorney Mickey Haller. He’s neither true believer nor scoundrel. He’s just a really interesting guy who happens to be a lawyer.
In the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt
In the way that atmospheric novels treat geographic setting as character, Roosevelt treats the law as a character here, both villain and protagonist.
The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen Carter
I’ve got to include a book featuring a law professor at the center of a sprawling thriller. Yale Law Prof Carter provides a searing portrayal of both academic and judicial politicking.
Supreme Ambitions, by David Lat
This forthcoming novel lifts the veil on the prestigious but cryptic role of judicial clerks. The author, founder of the law-blog Above the Law (think: Entertainment Weekly for lawyers), is a rock-star among law-geeks (to wit, he coined the term “bench-slap,” which now appears in Black’s Law Dictionary).
It’s within this context that I situate my tenth novel, All Day and a Night, which tells the story of a wrongful conviction claim from the perspectives of both recurring character NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and a young defense attorney named Carrie Blank. It has been described as a combination of police procedural, courtroom drama, and psychological thriller. To defy easy categorization is the highest praise I can ask for.