Legal Novel

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1940) 

Short Review: This meticulous study of the lynching of three innocent men in a Western town drew yawning reviews when first published. Its cynical view of an über-masculine sense of justice played poorly to an American audience still locked in a romance with its frontier past. Over time, however, critics have come to recognize Clark’s uncompromising view of mob justice as a work of genius.

Note: Director William Wellman’s 1943 film version of the novel got an Oscar nomination for best picture, but it was not nominated in any other category.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)

Short Review: Sir Eddie Feathers is known among colleagues as “Old Filth” (for “failed in London, try Hong Kong”). A much-admired lawyer, he has earned a prosperous career, a prestigious judgeship and a reputation for probity that seems at odds with the elusive par-ticulars of his past. Gardam’s gifts of observation give her prose the verve of satire, but the pulse of her humanity brings life to the details of Filth’s fading life.

Note: Gardam is 85 and has completed a trilogy based on Eddie Feathers. Noted Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine: “Her prose is so perceptive and fluid that it feels mentally healthful, exiling the noise and clutter of your mind as efficiently as a Schubert sonata. She could make actuarial tables pleasurable.”

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)

Short Review: Whether viewed as a work of philosophical genius or a crashing, narcissistic bore, there seems no middle ground for this investigation into the proper role of the intellectual in a world of “second handers.” In the book’s pivotal trial, an architect who has chosen to destroy the building he designed wins his own acquittal by describing to a jury the value to society of a healthy ego. Whether you hate it or love it, The Fountainhead is an important literary work.

Note: Based partly on a screenplay Rand wrote for Cecil B. DeMille, the book was originally titled Second-Hand Lives.

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958)

Short Review: A former district attorney in rural Michigan opens his defense practice by taking on a foul-tempered client accused of murder. The book, which became an Otto Preminger film, sizzles with courtroom confrontations grounded in the nuances of real-life trials.

Note: Traver was the pen name of John D. Voelker, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Short Review: Set in Gilead, a dystopian nation once known as the United States, Atwood’s best-seller explores an overthrow of the Constitution in favor of a Christian theocracy that results in a wholesale reversal of women’s rights. Women are forbidden to read or write or vote. And although the darkest fears presented by Atwood have proved unfounded by the decades since it was published—during the prime ascendancy of the Christian Right in national politics—the book’s fundamental apprehensions could be applied to a more global context.

Note: Atwood is Canadian, and The Handmaid’s Tale was short-listed for the 1986 Booker Prize.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)

Short Review: In this long-cherished tale of post-Napoleonic intrigue, Edmond Dantès is wrongly convicted of a politically inspired charge of treason. Condemned to prison for life, he escapes to the island of Monte Cristo, where a new identity and a found treasure allow him a chance to extract his revenge.

Note: Dumas acknowledged that he based the complicated plot on the real-life story of François Picaud, a Parisian shoemaker whose story of imprisonment and revenge was discovered by Dumas in police files. Dumas wrote the book in collaboration with Auguste Maquet.

The Firm by John Grisham (1991)

Short Review: Mitch McDeere is recruited to a job almost any associate would kill for: a high-paying gig that comes with a cut-rate mortgage and a BMW. He soon discovers that he’s actually working for a crime family, and that the accidental deaths of lawyers who preceded him weren’t accidental at all.

Note: This was Grisham’s second novel after A Time To Kill, and his first blockbuster. In 2011, author John Grisham received the inaugural Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for his book The Confession.

QB VII by Leon Uris (1970)

Short Review: This sprawling novel of post-Nazi justice explores a charge of libel brought in a London court by a Polish doctor. The doctor, Adam Kelno, is a naturalized British citizen who stands accused of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II. Kelno sues because writer Abraham Cady has accused him of performing thousands of operations on concentration camp prisoners. The truth proves different, but no less disturbing. And the jury’s decision bears out Cady’s prediction that both sides will lose.

Note: The novel is based loosely on a libel action brought against Uris himself by a Polish physician who worked at Auschwitz.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Short Review: This groundbreaking novel, first published in 1937, chronicles the rise of a young African-American woman—the granddaughter of a slave—and her struggle to establish control over her choices in life. At the center of the novel is a charge that she murdered her estranged husband. The novel, written in dialect, explores the turbulence of a sexuality and human identity repeatedly defined by men.

Note: The book was originally condemned by many mainstream African-American critics, but became recognized over time as a literary masterpiece. In 2005, Time recognized it as one the great books written in the English language since 1923 (the year Time began publishing).

The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk (1951)

Short Review: Wouk’s novel of honor, cynicism and moral judgment during a time of war is better remembered for the film treatment, which starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Francis Queeg, the beleaguered and oft-bewildered captain of a World War II minesweeper. But even in print, the mutiny and subsequent court-martial is a masterpiece of human drama set inside a legal proceeding.

Note: The Caine Mutiny not only displaced From Here to Eternity on the New York Times best-seller list but also won the 1952 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham (1989)

Short Review: This is Grisham’s first novel and, many critics believe, his best. It is a deceptively complicated, character-driven novel set against a simple act of revenge. Grisham almost single-handedly created the legal thriller genre with the 1991 publication of The Firm, but the real-life case upon which A Time to Kill is based prompted him to write novels in the first place.

Note: The book reflected Grisham’s complicated justification of the death penalty at the time. He has since become a vigorous opponent of capital punishment.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Short Review: At the end of this labyrinthine, 45-chapter saga, A Tale of Two Cities is, at its core, a tale of one lawyer. Barrister Sydney Carton is a cynical alcoholic whose life takes a dramatic turn when he falls in love. Carton’s friendship with Charles Darnay—a prisoner he is defending—and his subsequent sacrifice at a French guillotine, is set into motion by Carton’s presence, as a law clerk, at the Old Bailey during Darnay’s trial for treason. Their remarkable resemblance is instrumental in Darnay’s release.

Note: Dickens was inspired to write A Tale of Two Cities while acting in a play written by his close friend Wilkie Collins.

The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)

Short Review: Set in French Algeria, this absurdist novel revolves around the murder trial of its principal character, known only as Meursault. When Meursault is imprisoned for the murder in the desert of an unnamed Arab man, his lack of emotion is interpreted as a lack of remorse and he is condemned to the guillotine. But facing death, he finds himself oddly comforted by the simple fact of his own life.

Note: Camus, a former journalist and French resistance fighter, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)

Short Review: This gripping, angry novel presents the case of Bigger Thomas, a young Chicago black man whose discomfort with whites drives him deeper and deeper into trouble for reasons he cannot seem to explain. When he takes a live-in job with a wealthy white family, his life is overtaken by a series of circumstances that ends with him condemned to death for two murders.

Note: Native Son—Wright’s first novel—was based on the real-life case of Robert Nixon, who was executed for murder in 1938.

Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville (1853)

Short Review: This novel, actually a long short story, tells the tale of a young copyist whose addition to a small Manhattan law office becomes a saga of inaction and a very slow, perplexing death. Bartleby, though not a lawyer, has become the patron antihero of every lawyer stuck in the cycle of due diligence and contract legal work.

Note: Bartleby was originally published in two parts in Putnam’s Magazine.

The Paper Chase by John Jay Osborn Jr. (1971)

Short Review: This iconic law novel made law school sexy and fictional law professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. a household name. The real star, however, is the Socratic method, presented for the first time to a popular audience.

Note: Osborn published the novel in 1971, the year after he graduated from Harvard Law School.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925)

Short Review: This fictionalization of a real-life murder in the Adirondacks pits a young man of limited means against his own dreams of social acceptance among the wealthy. After a child’s accidental death, Clyde Griffiths flees the Midwest to fictional Lycurgus, N.Y., to become a middle manager in his uncle’s shirt factory. He is accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend to preserve his chances with the charming daughter of a local blue blood. The truth, however, is more complicated than that.

Note: Dreiser’s thinly veiled broadside against the materialism of the Roaring ’20s was published the same year as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987)

Short Review: Sherman McCoy, a bond trader and self-styled “Master of the Universe,” watches helplessly as his life unravels after a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx, caused by his panicky mistress. All of the characters from the ’80s are here—imperious judge, ambitious prosecutor, alcoholic journalist, community activist and patronizing white liberals—roiling in the decade’s curious brew of scandalous wealth, permanent poverty and racial tension, and contributing to the stench of moral decline.

Note: Wolfe first produced the book as two-dozen Dickensian installments in Rolling Stone.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Short Review: Hawthorne’s transcendentalist novel explores the notions of justice and revenge rooted in America’s theocratic past. He contrasts the honor of a fallen woman, Hester Prynne, with the sadistic manipulations of her cuckold husband, who exacts his own rough justice that proves far more demeaning than the emblem of adultery she is forced to wear.

Note: Hawthorne, a close friend of President Franklin Pierce’s, descended from a New England family that participated in the Salem witch trials.

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow (1987)

Short Review: Turow’s first novel, about a state prosecutor accused of murdering his colleague/mistress, helped establish the legal thriller as a literary genre. Sure, there’s plenty of political intrigue, legal maneuvering and a genuinely unexpected payoff at the end. But between the covers Turow commits an act of literature: jumbling good with bad, juggling wrong with right, and bleeding the insider’s knowledge that the law can be as much about politics as justice.

Note: Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, though a subordinate character, is every bit as charismatic and honorable as Atticus Finch. He even wins the case.

Billy Budd by Herman Melville (1924)

Short Review: Billy Budd is a model sailor aboard the HMS Bellipotent, a British warship. Budd is well-liked and respected, especially by the ship’s captain, Edward Fairfax Vere, so he is slow to recognize that he has run afoul of the ship’s master-at-arms, John Claggart. When Claggart falsely accuses him of mutiny, Budd strikes him with such force that Claggart dies. Tried at sea, Budd is condemned to hang after Capt. Vere expresses the need to place the rule of law above his affection for Budd. Convinced of the captain’s argument, Budd dies happily ever after.

Note: Billy Budd, a novella, was published from an unfinished manuscript more than 30 years after Melville’s death.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862)

Short Review: No need to recount in detail the particulars of this epic tale of twisted justice about a peasant condemned to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. This Hugo masterwork is on most short lists for the greatest novels of all time. His savage view of contemporary French society was not well-received by contemporary critics but proved wildly popular all over Europe. The work has endured as a classic, if sentimental, work of art.

Note: The popular TV series The Fugitive was inspired, in part, by Les Miserables. The dogged hunt for Richard Kimble by Lt. Philip Gerard was a purposeful nod to Inspector Javert’s similarly obsessive pursuit of Jean Valjean.

The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)

Short Review: Joseph K. is an innocuous bank assessor accused of an unspecified crime. Attempting to find a just resolution for the accusations against him—or even the nature of the accusations against him—he finds only fruitless confrontation with a dead-end bureaucracy that places form over substance in the most literal fashion imaginable. The irony of The Trial is the Kafkaesque reality that there is no trial, no justice, no end but an inevitable death.

Note: The Trial was essentially an unfinished novel, published as Der Prozess shortly after Kafka’s death.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1852)

Short Review: In the forefront of this Dickens classic is the story of Esther Summerson, who lives at Bleak House oblivious to the fact that she is the illegitimate child of Lady Dedlock. There is a murder, of course, and Lady Dedlock is suspected. But lawyers are not attracted to Bleak House for the whodunit. What they love is Dickens’ ongoing account of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, an estate case that drags from generation to generation until the money runs out. Dickens hits a nerve in his classic description of the underlying cynicism that too often drives litigation.

Note: Dickens based Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, at least the cynicism behind it, on his own litigation against publishers who turned out unauthorized copies of his immensely popular A Christmas Carol.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

Short Review: Unlike Joseph K.—the tortured protagonist of The Trial—Dostoevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov has actually committed a crime. He has murdered an elderly pawnbroker as part of a premeditated murder/robbery during which he kills the pawnbroker’s sister as well. At first delusional, even grandiose, about the nature of his crime, Raskolnikov finds himself unable to bear the psychological burden of guilt. His elaborate plan for the money he’s stolen is undermined by the steady intrusion of shame. This is one of the great works of modern literature that presumes the psychological foundation of moral behavior, and examines the palliative nature of guilt.

Note: Dostoevsky based Raskolnikov’s ultimate banishment to a prison camp in Siberia on his own experiences as a political dissident.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Short Review: Seriously, are you surprised? This most beloved of law novels features Atticus Finch—a lawyer who loses his biggest case, has his kids call him by his first name and struggles with the notion of turning one of them over to the local sheriff. And yet, since its introduction to the decade of the ’60s, this classic Depression-era bildungsroman has been the inspiration for tens of thousands of law school applications and, among practicing lawyers, more than a little reflective glory.

Atticus is more than a lawyer. He’s won both the Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award. He was voted the greatest American film hero by the American Film Institute. He forever resembles Gregory Peck. He holds such a firm imprint on American culture that even lawyers discuss him as though he were real.

When he speaks, it’s with the voice of aphorism that sweetens even the bitterest truth.

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Atticus said that. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus said that.

And lots of lawyers, given the chance to be in the skin of Atticus, would like to think that they would stand against bigotry, venality and even simple stupidity with the same paternal aplomb. That takes courage, and in courage lingers the strong probability of defeat.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Atticus said that, too.