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Washington Lawyer

Lit or Miss

From Washington Lawyer, April 2010

By Patrick Anderson

faceWhen I was a young reporter some 40 years ago, it was said that every newspaperman had a half-written novel stashed away in his desk drawer. More recently, that appears to be true for lawyers as well.

Just a few decades ago novels by lawyers were rare; today, spurred by the conspicuous success of John Grisham and Scott Turow, among others, novels by and about lawyers proliferate. During the past decade, while reviewing thrillers (broadly defined) for the The Washington Post, I have read several dozen legal thrillers, and that is only a fraction of what is out there. Moreover, I have been struck by the high quality of writing many lawyer/novelists produce.

By my definition, the modern legal thriller was born in 1987 with the publication of Turow’s Presumed Innocent, but there were certainly other novels about lawyers before then. I want to start by mentioning three lawyers and one law school dropout who published novels in the middle third of the 20th century and, in various ways, helped pave the way for the explosion that lay ahead.

For many years America’s best known fictional lawyer was Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, who rarely, if ever, lost a case in a long series of courtroom dramas that began as novels and moved on to radio and television. Gardner (1889–1970) was a self-taught California lawyer who turned to fiction in the 1930s and proceeded to write close to 150 novels, most in three weeks or fewer. His 82 Perry Mason novels were crude by today’s standards, but they made clear the commercial potential of courtroom theatrics.

At the other end of the scale, Louis Auchincloss (University of Virginia School of Law, 1941) managed for more than half a century to combine careers as a prolific novelist and an attorney with leading New York law firms. His novels were in the tradition of Edith Wharton, and sometimes turned on the moral choices facing lawyers. In every way he was the polar opposite of a crowd-pleaser like Gardner; Auchincloss approached legal fiction as literature.

In 1958 Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder became a surprise bestseller. Traver was the pen name of John D. Voelker (University of Michigan Law School, 1928), a lawyer in Upper Michigan who later became a prosecutor and member of the Michigan Supreme Court. The novel was based on a case in which Voelker defended a client charged with murdering a man who had allegedly raped his wife. Voelker’s client was found not guilty by reason of insanity. After the huge success of the novel, and a movie version starring Jimmy Stewart, Voelker resigned from the court to devote himself to writing and fishing.

Finally, in 1960, a young woman’s novel about an Alabama lawyer came out of nowhere to win huge sales and a Pulitzer Prize: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel turns on the effort of an honorable white lawyer, Atticus Finch, to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Not only was Lee’s father a lawyer who gave up trial work after two black men he defended were convicted, but Lee herself studied law at the University of Alabama for a year, before deciding to pursue a writing career. To Kill a Mockingbird is variously a courtroom drama, a study of Southern racism, a portrait of small-town Alabama in the 1930s, and the coming-of-age story of its narrator, Finch’s daughter Scout, but its literary merit carries it far beyond genre.

Gardner, Auchincloss, Traver, and Lee: interesting writers all, but there was no clear tradition of legal fiction in the mid-1980s until Scott Turow, a Chicago lawyer in his mid-30s, set out to write a novel. He was, however, well qualified to make the effort. After graduating from Amherst College in 1970, Turow spent five years in a creative writing program at Stanford University, first as a student, then as a teacher. In 1975 he entered Harvard Law School and proceeded to write a book, One L, about his first year there. Upon graduation he returned to Chicago and spent eight years as an assistant U.S. attorney. In his spare time Turow began writing a novel about a prosecutor named Rusty Sabich who is accused of murdering his mistress.

Turow, in his youth, had read the Sherlock Holmes stories and watched Perry Mason on television, but by the time he began to write his novel, his models were such writers as Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, and John le Carré. Turow once told me this about his first novel:

I wrote a mystery because I wanted to make some use of my experiences as a prosecutor and because I was sick of having my ‘serious’ efforts rejected. When I finished Presumed Innocent, my bet would have been that I’d fallen between the stools—too serious to be commercial, too genre to be serious.

Turow would have lost that bet. Presumed Innocent was a brilliant marriage of craft and commercialism. It ranked seventh in sales among American novels in 1987 and became an excellent movie. The novel makes demands on the reader, but its mix of sex, murder, law, politics, duplicity, and suspense is irresistible. No one has ever written a better novel about American lawyers than Turow did his first time out.

John Grisham was born in Arkansas in 1955; was raised in Southaven, Mississippi; and graduated from law school at Ole Miss. He practiced law in Southaven and, in 1983, was elected to the state legislature. But Grisham had more on his mind than law and politics. He had come of age during the painful years of racial conflict, and he was well aware of the hatred, hypocrisy, and injustice around him. In court one day, he watched the anguished testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. An idea occurred to him: What if the girl’s father had, in a rage, murdered the rapist? Would a jury convict him of murder? What if the father was black and the rapist white?

Grisham started rising at dawn to write. His plot was not unlike that of To Kill a Mockingbird—a white lawyer defending a black man charged with a crime against white victims. But Grisham’s A Time to Kill (1988) is a far more violent novel than To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel opens with an almost unreadable account of the rape of a black girl by two rednecks. Soon the girl’s father kills the two men. Grisham’s hero, Jake Brigance, who defends the father, is not a saintly lawyer like Atticus Finch. His very name suggests brigand, and the fictional town of Clanton, Mississippi, none too subtly suggests Klan town.

The publishing world was not impressed by Grisham’s tale of backwoods crime and punishment. Sixteen agents declined to represent him, and a dozen publishers rejected the novel before a small publishing house brought out a modest first printing. Like most first novels, it sank like a stone.

Grisham, undaunted, was soon at work on a second novel, but this time he made an adjustment. A Time to Kill is a raw, ugly story; many readers would never get past that opening rape scene. Grisham learned from the failure of his all-too-realistic first novel. For his second, The Firm, he devised a far more fanciful and commercial plot: a young Harvard Law grad is hired by a small Memphis, Tennessee, firm that turns out to be controlled by the mob; lawyers who object to the arrangement wind up dead.

The novel sold to Paramount Pictures, pre-publication, for $600,000 and went on to become the nation’s seventh bestselling novel in 1991. Grisham’s next novel, The Pelican Brief, also featured an eye-catching opening scene: two Supreme Court justices are murdered and a beautiful law student and a fearless investigative reporter are soon on the case. In these novels and the many others that followed, Grisham’s knowledge of the law and his exceptional gift as a storyteller—combined with often improbable but highly commercial plots—have made him one of the most successful American writers of all time.

Lisa Scottoline (University of Pennsylvania Law School, 1981) and David Baldacci (University of Virginia School of Law, 1986) both published their first novels soon after Grisham’s breakthrough and were probably influenced by his example. Scottoline’s first book, Everywhere That Mary Went, appeared in 1994, and there have been many more, most of which feature wise-cracking women lawyers. A few years back I reviewed Courting Trouble, which stars Anne Murphy, the sexy partner in an all-woman law firm in Philadelphia. Murphy wears “impractical Manolo Blahnik heels,” and in one courtroom scene she has a male stripper fling off his raincoat to reveal himself “buck naked,” only to be forgiven by an admiring judge. The main action of the novel involves Murphy’s efforts to catch a stalker, although she finds time to fall into bed with a hunky lawyer who is her opponent in a harassment case. The novel is harmless fun, but too close to chick-lit for my taste. Still, Scottoline’s books—written by a woman, about women, and for women—have been wildly popular.

So have the novels of Baldacci, who was practicing law in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s when he wrote his first one, Absolute Power, which opens with a dynamite scene in which the president of the United States and his mistress are in bed in an isolated country house. They fight, whereupon the ever-vigilant Secret Service dashes in and shoots the woman dead. The question of how to cover up her death is complicated by the fact that a burglar had broken into the house and witnessed the shooting from a hiding place. It’s a good plot, but for some reason (almost certainly involving the frequent stupidity of the publishing industry) it took Baldacci two years to sell his novel. When it finally came out in 1996, it was a bestseller and was made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood.

Baldacci went on to be a prolific, highly successful novelist. In 2004 I reviewed his Hour Game, which pitted a male–female pair of ex-Secret Service agents against a fiendish serial killer who is decimating a small Virginia town. It is a silly novel about silly people and Baldacci finally lost me, near the end, when the fiend is about to chop someone’s head off but “before he could bring it down on her neck, the handle of the ax exploded.” This is due to our female hero’s sharpshooting. In the shootout that follows, “Beating odds of probably a billion to one, the two bullets had collided.”

Beating odds of probably a billion to one, I survived Hour Game with my sanity intact, but that was enough Baldacci for me. He writes with skill but he seems to have decided to write the most commercial rather than the best novels he can. His model seems not to be Turow, or even Grisham, but the deplorable James Patterson whose novels are dumb cartoons that have amazing sales.

Another Patterson—Richard North Patterson (Case Western Reserve University School of Law, 1971)—has been a bestselling lawyer/novelist. His first work, The Lasko Tangent, was published in 1979, followed by three more novels, after which he quit his law practice to write full time in 1993. Since then Patterson has published a series of novels that mostly focus on legal and political issues. He writes in the tradition of Allen Drury, but Drury’s novels reflected his conservatism and Patterson tilts leftward. I reviewed two of his novels in recent years. In Protect and Defend, the president nominates a woman judge to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and her confirmation fight focuses on the abortion issue. The novel makes a strong case for the pro choice position, so much so that Patterson’s political agenda undercut his effectiveness as a storyteller. His 2007 novel, The Race, was more fun. It took a fictional look at a battle for the Republican presidential nomination. Its gleeful orgy of hypocrisy, dirty tricks, and corruption has a certain train-wreck fascination, and if you follow politics, it does not seem far from reality.

Turow, Grisham, Scottoline, Baldacci, and Patterson are well-known writers. The ones I will discuss next are not so well known, but some of them should be.

In the Shadow of the Law, by Kermit Roosevelt III (Yale Law School, 1997), was published in 2005 and is an extended meditation on lawyers and the law. Roosevelt, a great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, clerked for Justice David Souter before joining a leading Chicago firm. His is a slow-moving novel that looks closely at various members of a Washington firm, particularly young associates who are paid $125,000 to be, in effect, factory workers whose product is billable hours. None has a satisfying personal life and few have any illusions. One is told, “You’re not supposed to get work done. You’re supposed to bill hours.”

The novel’s most interesting character is a former Supreme Court clerk who loves the law but is bored and even repelled by its practice. By the end of the novel he’s investigating law school teaching posts—just as Roosevelt himself left private practice to be an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. (He recently became a full professor.)

It’s interesting to compare In the Shadow of the Law with Grisham’s recent The Associate. Both novels offer a tough look at a blue chip law firm: the frustrations of the associates, the greed and cynicism of the partners, and the endless ripping off of the clueless clients. Roosevelt’s characters are drawn with far more depth and subtlety, but Grisham builds his novel around a commercial gimmick that probably would never have occulted to Roosevelt. Grisham’s idealistic, young associate/hero has all the usual frustrations, but he also has a far more serious problem: someone has learned that as an undergraduate he was present at a possible rape. If this is revealed, he will not only lose his job—he might go to prison. His tormentor insists that he betray his firm by stealing and handing over documents in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit between two defense contractors. Grisham is well aware that most young lawyers are in little danger of being blackmailed, but plot twists such as the rape and blackmail have kept him at the top of the bestseller lists for nearly 20 years.

Justin Peacock (Yale Law School, 2002) published his excellent first novel, A Cure for Night, in 2008. At the outset, a young lawyer is fired from his job with a top-drawer Manhattan firm after he gets involved with a sexy paralegal who overdoses on heroin in the firm’s ladies’ room. He becomes a public defender in Brooklyn when nobody else will hire him because of the scandal. The novel’s plot concerns his defense of a drug dealer who may or may not have shot someone to death in a Brooklyn housing project. Peacock tells us a lot about both the drug culture and about the public defender culture, whose harried lawyers spend a lot of time worrying about the morality of getting guilty clients off and agonizing when they can’t keep innocent ones out of prison. The underlying question is whether Peacock’s hero would rather stick with the relative idealism of the public defender’s office or return the big money of a blue chip firm. It’s a story he tells with unusual skill.

Robert Reuland (Vanderbilt University Law School) is another lawyer who is a first-rate writer. In 2004 I read his second novel, Semiauotomatic (the first was Hollowpoint, published in 2001). It’s the story of a prosecutor who is pressured to go along with a judicial frame-up, sanctioned by his bosses, if he wants to keep his job. It’s a good story, but what struck me most about the novel was its vivid writing. Small grace notes enliven page after page. An old judge lusts after a woman lawyer “only in darting hooded glances.” That judge, without his black robe, “is the janitor again.” A juror “has the soft, indistinct features of someone who owns cats.” Reuland’s literary sensibility is closer to John Updike’s than to Grisham’s.

Semiautomatic is as good a legal novel as I have read in recent years, and I have looked forward to Reuland’s next. But he reports on his Web site that he has written two more novels that have been turned down by his publisher. On the basis of Semiautomatic, I strongly suspect that the problem is not any failure on Reuland’s part, but the increasing reluctance of publishers to take chances on writers whose previous books haven’t sold acceptably. Reuland says that he is practicing criminal law in Brooklyn and at work on a new novel. His situation should be considered by lawyers who dream of literary glory: it’s a tough business, perhaps even tougher than law.

In 2002 James Zagel, a U.S. district court judge in Chicago, published a darkly hilarious first novel called Money to Burn, about a fictional judge who sets out to rob the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago of $100 million in cash. Why? Judge Paul Devine tells us it’s because he loathes the bank’s president, because he is tired of being “Perfect Paulie” as he’s been known since childhood, because he’s bored, and because it’s there. He and some confederates do manage to overcome the bank’s supposedly impregnable security system and escape with millions of dollars. Then the thieves fall out, a smart cop gets on their trail, and we turn the pages anxiously, wondering if the charming Irish judge will wind up in the slammer. Judge Zagel (Harvard Law, 1963) seems to have a knack for the spotlight. He played a judge in the 1989 movie Music Box and he is scheduled to preside over the upcoming corruption trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.

Women lawyers are turning to fiction, too. For Alafair Burke (Stanford Law School, 1994), it runs in the family. She is the daughter of the great crime novelist James Lee Burke. I reviewed her first novel, Judgment Calls, in 2003. She had been an assistant district attorney in Portland, Oregon, and her novel is set there. Its heroine is a thirtyish prosecutor who sets out to prosecute a brutal crime and soon finds herself enmeshed in a web of prostitution, murder, and high-level politics. Judgment Calls was a solid debut and Burke, who now teaches criminal law at Hofstra Law School, has published five more well-received novels. The fifth, 212, was released in March. Her recent novels, reflecting her own change of venue, feature a woman detective with the New York City Police Department.

Washington lawyer Allan Topol (Yale Law, 1965) has combined a career with Covington & Burling LLP, where he is now a senior counsel, with the writing of six novels, most set in a world of international intrigue and conspiracy. The most recent, Enemy of My Enemy (2005), involves a U.S. pilot who is shot down over Turkey, his rich father who demands that the president bomb the Turks back to the Stone Age, and a bloodthirsty general in Syria who is trying to buy Russian nuclear weapons to attack the United States. We are, in short, in Robert Ludlum territory, although Topol’s book was more fun than I ever found Ludlum. He’s currently at work on a novel about U.S.–China relations.

It’s not uncommon for lawyer/novelists to satirize or criticize their profession, but I don’t recall a more scathing attack than the one Mark Gimenez makes in his first novel, The Color of Law. Gimenez is a Texan who received his law degree from Notre Dame University and became a partner in a Dallas firm. His novel is a blistering attack on the legal profession, Dallas in general, and the superrich enclave of Highland Park in particular. Gimenez’s hero is 35-year-old A. Scott Fenney, a poor boy whose football exploits at Highland Park High School helped him become a partner in the city’s leading law firm. He’s making $750,000 a year, lives in a $3.5 million mansion, and has a gorgeous wife who cheats on him. His downfall begins when he’s appointed to represent a black prostitute accused of murdering an entirely worthless white man. The problem is that the worthless victim’s father is the state’s senior senator and a candidate for president. Fenney comes under great pressure to drop out of the case but refuses because he has come to believe in the woman’s innocence.

It’s a juicy plot and much enlivened by the author’s caustic portrait of Dallas and its most powerful citizens. We’re told that lawyers regard rich clients like chickens to be plucked, and that judges are there to be bought by campaign contributions. Fenney reflects that every lawyer goes through a metamorphosis, “like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly, only in reverse: from a beautiful human being to a slimy lawyer.” He even reflects that he and his client have a lot in common since both of them are highly paid, by the hour, for personal services. Unsurprisingly, Gimenez left the law to pursue fiction and has written three more novels—The Abduction, The Perk, and The Common Lawyer—all set in Texas. By the way, if you didn’t get the joke, the color of law is green, like money.

Most of the novels discussed so far have been less about substantive issues than about courtroom conflict and tarnished idealism. Paul Goldstein’s A Patent Lie, released in 2008, stands out because the author is an internationally recognized authority on copyright law who has, of all things, written an entertaining novel about copyright law. Goldstein (Columbia University School of Law, 1967) teaches at Stanford Law School, writes textbooks on copyright and intellectual property issues, and has found time to write two novels reflecting those subjects. His debut novel, Errors and Omissions, came out in 2006. A Patent Lie tells of a lawyer who is drawn into a patent law case in which two drug firms are battling over ownership of a new AIDS vaccine. Billions of dollars are at stake, and one side may be willing to commit murder to win. Goldstein’s writing is graceful and his comments on the law are astute. He also manages to make the complexity of the lawsuit more or less comprehensible to a layman like me.

By and large, one does not think of lawyers as funny, but I have discovered at least two whose novels had me laughing out loud. William Lashner (New York University School of Law), who once worked in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Criminal Division, writes a series about a hapless Philadelphia lawyer named Victor Carl, who starts off Past Due (2004) with this litany of woe:

My legal practice was failing for want of paying clients and my partner was thinking of bolting to greener pastures. My last love affair ended badly, to say the least. I had been summoned to Traffic Court for a myriad of moving violations that were really, really not my fault…. And worst of all, my cable had been cut off because I had fallen behind on my bill.

At the start of Past Due a client of Carl’s called Joey Cheaps is found with his throat cut. What’s worse, he owed Carl $3,500. The search for Joey’s missing money involves a right-wing judge, a mob boss, a biker, an overweight lesbian, and a host of other bizarre characters. There are seven Victor Carl novels now and they’re all fun.

Dylan Schaffer is another lawyer blessed with a sense of humor. His daffy, delightful first novel, Misdemeanor Man (2004), concerns a San Francisco public defender named Gordon “Gordo” Seegerman, who is representing a fellow charged with exposing himself in a shopping mall. In legal thrillers, of course, no case is ever simple, and the alleged flashing soon expands to include murder, conspiracy, and millions of dollars. Gordo’s real passion, it develops, is not the “wanker,” as he calls his client, but singer Barry Manilow. Gordo is desperate to settle the flasher case because his Manilow cover band has an upcoming gig that Manilow himself may attend. Schaffer isn’t kidding about his character’s love for Manilow. He fearlessly called his next novel I Right the Wrongs.

Starting in 1987, Robert K. Tanenbaum (University of California Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, 1968) has more or less annually published a novel about the adventures of New York Assistant District Attorney Butch Karp. The Karp novels are well-written and have achieved a good deal of popularity. For years, at the start of each novel, Tanenbaum would thank Michael Gruber for his assistance. In fact, Gruber was Tanenbaum’s cousin, a professional writer, and by all appearances Tanenbaum helped conceive the novels but Gruber did most or all of the writing.

The partnership ended when Gruber, after 15 collaborations, tired of being a ghost and began writing his own novels, whereupon something wonderful happened. Gruber’s novels—the first three of which are Tropic of Night, Valley of Bones, and Night of the Jaguar, all set in Miami and featuring a Cuban American detective—are simply brilliant. The Tanenbaum novels are highly readable, but the Gruber novels rank with the best crime fiction of the past 10 years. Gruber, a journeyman writer, had at around the age of 60 found his own voice. Tanenbaum, meanwhile, has continued the Karp series with other collaborators.

America’s publishers dream of finding another Grisham, and thus far the closest they have come is John Lescroart. He writes an excellent series about defense lawyer Dismas Hardy and homicide detective Abe Glitsky, two friends in San Francisco who sometimes wind up on opposite sides in court. Lescroart is no lawyer; he was variously a bartender, a rock singer, a computer programmer, and a moving man before he started publishing novels in his early 40s. He is, however, a born writer who has worked hard to be able to explain how lawyers and detectives do their work. I prefer his books to Grisham’s because his plots are more believable and his characters more closely observed.

More perhaps than any other writer discussed here, Lescroart takes us into the personal lives of his characters. The murders and conspiracies his two heroes examine are well-wrought, but it’s the people who give his books an extra dimension. Do not read his novels if you don’t want to learn about the two men’s wives and ex-wives, their children, their friends, and assorted cops, politicians, lawyers, and criminals because Lescroart cares about them all. He has published about 20 novels now and 15 of them feature Hardy and Glitsky. My advice is to check out a few of them—The Oath, The Motive, or The Mercy Rule, or any of the others. They are first-rate.

There are many more legal thrillers out there—some I have read and don’t have room for here, others I have not discovered yet. But even this partial list should suggest the variety and vitality of the genre. Novels about lawyers can be fascinating, and, perhaps not surprisingly, lawyers can write them as well as anyone else. Maybe better.

So, Mr. or Ms. Washington Lawyer, should you take the plunge? Start rising at dawn like the young Grisham to tell the world the truth about law and justice in America? Sure, why not give it a shot? All you have to lose is contact with your loved ones. Still, words of caution are called for. For every Grisham, Turow, or Balducci, there are thousands of would-be novelists who cannot finish a novel, or cannot get their novel published, or cannot live on its meager royalties if they do. The life of the successful novelist is a happy one but, even as you dream of literary glory, don’t quit your day job.

Patrick Anderson has published nine novels and four books of nonfiction. He regularly reviews crime fiction for The Washington Post. He reviewed Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons in the January 2010 issue of Washington Lawyer.