On September 20, 2012, Kenneth Randall, dean of the University of Alabama School of Law, presented author Michael Connelly with the second annual Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction for his work, The Fifth Witness.
The Fifth Witness is a legal thriller that features Connelly’s recurring character, lawyer Mickey Haller. Haller represents a woman accused of killing a banker after her home was threatened with foreclosure. The book, which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, was selected over two other finalists, Robert Dugoni, author of Murder One and David Ellis, author of Breach of Trust.
The annual Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is given to a book-length fictional work that “best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society, and their power to effect change.” The University of Alabama School of Law and the ABA Journal sponsor the prize.
A Selection Committee, which included New York Times bestselling novelist Linda Fairstein, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New York Times bestselling novelist Lisa Scottoline, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, and FOX News political analyst Juan Williams, helped select the winner along with a vote cast by public poll via the ABA Journal’s website.
David Mao, Law Librarian of Congress, spoke at the event. He focused his remarks on the connection between the Harper Lee Prize and the National Book Festival, “the University of Alabama and the American Bar Association hold this event today to help us kick off a celebration of books over the next couple of days —a celebration of law and the book.” Mao rejected any reports citing the “death of reading and books in general” in the United States, as the Festival exemplifies that “we really are a nation of readers.” The festival’s history is a testament to this; Mao cited the growing popularity of the Festival from an initial 30,000 visitors for a one day event to last year’s 200,000 attendees over two days.
In May, the Library commenced a multi-year project – Celebration of the Book. As part of the project, the Library opened the Books that Shaped America exhibit in the historic Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibit is part of a larger series of programs, symposia, and other events—including the National Book Festival—that explore the important and varied ways that books influence our lives. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is one of the 98 books selected for this exhibit. As Mao pointed out, “this speaks to the book’s memorable characters and to the themes that are still important and relevant, more than 50 years after its publication—law, justice, and the role of lawyers in society.”
Following Mao’s speech and the presentation of the award Ron Charles, fiction editor of The Washington Post, led a panel discussion of The Fifth Witness as it relates to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Guest panelists included authors Linda Fairstein, Lisa Scottoline, Allen Pusey and Thane Rosenbaum.
In his moderation, Ron Charles skillfully tied Lee’s Atticus Finch with Connelly’s Mickey Haller. He pointed out that, Atticus remains a great figure in today’s legal profession and is still invoked in countless Law School admission essays.
Charles raised a number of questions for the panelists – what was your first impression of To Kill a Mockingbird; how does Atticus stand up in today’s world; how is Atticus represented in Haller; what makes legal procedure and courtrooms good for storytelling; and where will crime/legal fiction go in the next twenty years?
The panelists developed a consensus that the days of Atticus, as far as legal fiction characters are concerned, have passed. Atticus serves as an ideal, taking on the book’s role of a moral backbone. Mickey Haller, on the other hand, represents a more normalized take on today’s lawyer - one who still is willing to take on a tough case for moral reasons but is shown as human and flawed.
Although the characters in today’s legal thrillers are very different from Atticus, the theme of wanting to fight the good fight and the hope of winning against all odds as the underdog connects the characters. It is in their approach, through the use of cleverness, scientific evidence, and street smarts, that they distinguish themselves.
What is your take on these questions? Where do you see legal fiction going in the next twenty years?