I’ve always liked stories about lawyers and the law, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” starting me off in a big way in childhood. Being from the South, the book has always had a special resonance with me, and, really, who doesn’t love Atticus Finch — or Gregory Peck?
Now that I’m writing my own novels, I’ve learned to appreciate lawyerly books – and movies and TV — even more, not just as pure entertainment but also as little instruction manuals on how to tell rich and satisfying tales, no matter the genre..
When you pick up crime fiction, even bestsellers, the odds are about 50/50 that you’ll get both a well-done plot and fascinating characters.
But legal entertainment – books, movies and TV — is different. Characters and plot, of necessity, are closely intertwined, so that the story is carried by both. Think of Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” for example, with its deep, multi-layered hero, Rusty Sabich, and a perfect plot that holds you right to the end. You can’t lose with a combination like that.
Part of the magic is that courtroom dramas are mysteries in and of themselves. The law, an arcane instrument at best, is a ready-made setup for suspense. Add defendants (people with BIG things to lose), prosecutors (those having righteousness on their side, at least some of the time), witnesses (folks holding pieces of the puzzle) and you almost always have strong, fully defined characters.
Finally, every courtroom has a ticking clock, which just makes the witches brew that much better.
Yes, some legal entertainment is deadly boring. But scoop up your average crime fiction and compare it to your average legal crime fiction and I bet you’ll find a difference.
Right now I’m watching “The Good Wife,” which stars Chris Noth as the wonderfully philandering Illinois State’s Attorney, Peter Florrick, and Julianna Margulies as his long-suffering wife and a defense lawyer to boot. I love the way the authors dump misery on Lockhart Gardner, the fictitious firm front and center in this thoroughly engaging story. It just gets worse and worse, yet LG is a firm you pull for – and, more than that, believe in. When they drink champagne after triumphing over yet another adversity, you sip the bubbly, too.
You have to especially appreciate Will Gardner, a fully flawed but fundamentally decent man who trades both personal and professional knockout blows with avaricious prosecutors on a daily basis. How a guy like this can get up and go to work in the morning stumps even my innate optimism. But he is just one of a large and ever-changing troupe of characters, a swath of humanity that is painted with a wide palette and knowing brush.
Before this series, I watched “Suits” and “Silk,” both first-rate, the former American and the latter British. Both totally different from “The Good Wife” in all respects except for the superb plotting and characterizations. I hated for “Silk” to finish but completely agreed with the show’s producers and writers that they had a perfect ending. Kudos to them for refusing to be cajoled into extending the series beyond its natural life.
As far as “Suits,” I’m waiting for Netflix to load the last two seasons. A nice, tasty treat awaiting me.
On the print side, I just finished J. F. Freedman’s “Key Witness,” a book I read closely for its many plot twists and compelling characters. Mr. Freedman is also the author of “Against the Wind,” a much celebrated Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club selection. This is my next read.
Over the past year, I’ve revisited many legal novels, including virtually all the original Grisham books. While it’s hard to find one that isn’t terrific — and instructive — I have to give “The Brethren” the gold star.
Wit, originality, unforgettable characters and a corker of a plot — how could you not be inspired to write even better after finishing it?
Some others I’ve been enjoying:
1. Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller Series. The first book out was “The Lincoln Lawyer,” which was made into a great movie starring Matthew McConaughey. I find the series much lighter and more digestible than some of Connelly’s pure crime novels.
2. “Death on a High Floor,” by Charles Rosenberg. I’ve read this three times. That’s how good it is.
3. Randy Singer’s legal novels. He has nine by now, all excellent. His debut book, “Directed Verdict,” is somewhat of a classic.
4. The “Solomon vs. Lord” series by Paul Levine. Good characters, good plots, just good entertainment.
There are many, many many more terrific books and movies and TV shows — “Boston Legal” and “The Practice,” possibly the best ever, are left out of the above discussion solely because I haven’t yet sprung for the cost of buying these series on DVD and the last time I saw them was years ago.
“Rumpole of the Bailey,” Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Verdict,” “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Fracture,” “Judgement at Nuremberg,” and “My Cousin Vinny” I watch about every five years. They’re coming up again soon.
Ditto the Perri O’Shaughnessy books, as well as those of Nancy Taylor Rosenberg,Steve Martini, Linda Fairstein, Lisa Scottoline, William J. Coughlin, John Lescroart — and gee, Mom, are we there yet?
Knowing that I’ve failed to mention, well, a ton, I’ll conclude by saying the ones I’ve included above are a few that have been influencing my work of late by reminding me what a truly enthralling story includes.
And the list grows….