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.