From a very young age, mysteries, crime novels and other types of legal fiction were always my favorites. I preferred the Hardy Boys to Nancy Drew. In college, I always went to Georges Simenon and Maigret whenever I had to read a novel for French class. And today when I’m on vacation you can find me with Agatha Christie, John Grisham, P.D. James, or any of the other “classic” writers.
But my all-time favorite novel in the legal fiction genre has to be Crime and Punishment. The first time I read it, I was blown away by the incredibly vivid descriptions of Raskolnikov’s state of mind, the first person narrative of his justifications for his crime and his sometimes fevered reasoning. Despite Adrian’s statement about the book below, it is a great read.
Though a relatively new award, the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is an annual event that I look forward to because I like perusing the list of nominees for unfamiliar titles and authors. I also like that the public’s opinion counts as a 5th vote on the panel and that the prize is given in conjunction with the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival.
This year’s winner is Deborah Johnson, an author whose work I have not yet read (but you can be sure that won’t last long). Johnson is the first woman and African-American to win the prize.
Discussing this year’s prize sparked a conversation amongst the blog team about our favorite legal fiction. So we decided to poll the entire Law Library staff about their favorite work of legal fiction. Below are some of their responses.
Of course we had a few in the Grisham camp (a two-time winner of the Harper Lee Prize, in 2011 and 2014):
Connie Johnson said: “I’ve enjoyed many legal fiction works, but right now I’m thinking of The Client by Grisham.”
Aga Pukniel waivers between The Client and The Pelican Brief because good guys win in both cases:
The Pelican Brief was a great read (I have a copy at home in Polish and re-read it from time to time), good story and it showed the issue from both a legal aspect and an investigative journalism aspect with the latter one being close to my heart because I worked as a journalist and I know how arduous investigative work can be.
The Client – I only saw the movie and with Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones one cannot go wrong. The legal aspects of the kid hiring the lawyer for a symbolic dollar and their joint investigation to find proof and later to negotiate with the FBI the exchange of lawyer’s and kid’s information for a witness protection program and other privileges was fascinating. There are other Grisham legal fiction novels that I’ve read or watched as movies, but these two – in my opinion – were the best.
While Luke Thornley chose Grisham’s The Summons as his favorite legal fiction book.
Jennifer G. said that “John Grisham novels are my favorite legal fiction. I’m pretty sure reading his books and watching Law & Order helped me get through law school!”
Like me Adrian Korz seems to be a big fan of the genre – choosing both Grisham and more classics (while disparaging my choice).
1. The Pelican Brief by Grisham (I was in New Orleans when this was filmed)
2. “The Bet” by Chekhov because its short and sweet (as opposed to Crime and Punishment which is long, and the later portion of the title aptly describes what it’s like to read it)
3. Kafka’s “The Trial” because sometimes life can be absurd
Other classical literature lovers include:
Wendy Zeldin: “Bleak House!! Because it represents the dark side of the judicial system and the elusiveness of obtaining justice; Jarndyce v. Jarndyce encapsulates all the despair of interminable litigation that only enriches lawyers and bankrupts the client.”
and Brandon Fitzgerald (a literature major):
It’s not often that a short story from the mid-19th century resonates so well with contemporary audiences, but Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Tale of Wall Street does just that. This is a tale of a literal occupation of Wall Street: a laid-off law clerk refusing to vacate his employer’s office. While most notable works of legal fiction focus on suspense and crime, Melville’s is mostly one of inaction and the mechanical mundanity and drudgery of legal work. I think that’s why it appeals so much to those in the legal profession, which isn’t nearly as thrilling as popular culture would lead many to believe. Bartleby is absurd, amusing, radical, puzzling and tragic. It’s everything anyone could want in a story. Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’ The Stranger would make for great complementary reading.
And then we had a whole host of other titles and authors, proving that legal types cannot get enough of the law from just their daily work.
Liah gives us the following:
My favorite legal fiction book is Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain. Before I read this beautifully written historical novel, I was not aware of North Carolina’s 1929 sterilization law and the North Carolina Eugenics Board program that sterilized an estimated 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974 as a means to control people with disabilities from having children. I was appalled to learn of this history, but thankful to author for bringing this part of history to light.
and Josh Darland explains:
My favorite piece of legal fiction is Lindsey Davis’s The Accusers a novel about a Roman detective who is forced to become a lawyer for an adventure in the court room. I enjoyed the fictional look at Roman courts, lawyers, and how their civil justice system worked. It was fascinating to see how the law worked in the past and that lawyers and judges have changed very little in 2000 years. Davis has always been willing to take on little recorded aspects of Roman life (prepaid travel tours, how financial and real estate markets worked, and vanity publishing to name a few) and The Accusers is another great look at a little recorded aspect of Roman life. As The Accusers is volume 15 in Davis’s long running Marcus Dido Falco mystery series it’s a little hard to pick up and just start but it’s well worth the read.
while Jennifer D. had a tough time deciding on her favorite.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, because Garcia Marquez, an experienced journalist, not only told a riveting story, he told it in a fresh and interesting way. The narrative gathers interviews with the townspeople like connecting points on an incident board. Their motives are fascinating, and they are all complicit in the titular death.
William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own opens with the sentence; “Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” The title itself comes from the case Joel v. Morrison, 1834, 6 C.&P. 501, 172 Eng.Rep.1338. Nearly every character is suing someone, or is a lawyer or a judge. Copyright law figures prominently in one of the central storylines. The testimony of an entire case and the text of a play written by one of the characters is included in the novel. To add to the fun, Gaddis does not use quotation marks or name the speakers in the text; the reader identifies the speaker by context and content. The novel’s text is dense and requires all the reader’s attention; that said, it is a deeply rewarding read for the humor. This book won Gaddis his second National Book Award–if awards make you more enthusiastic about trying a book.
Deborah Kitchin is another that cannot choose just one!
I can’t choose just one! Three books rank among my favorites in legal fiction. The Chamber by John Grisham, The Green Mile by Stephen King, and The Red Scream by Mary Willis Walker– all explore the gray areas of capital punishment and the emotions and reality of inmates on death row. The controversial issue is tackled from the perspectives of a lawyer trying to clear his former Klansman grandfather, a prison guard who sees the humanity in a convicted murderer, and a crime beat journalist whose reporting on the case earned her an invitation from the inmate to watch his execution. Well-written and thought provoking, all three stories have stayed with me years after reading them.
and Elizabeth Moore told me that “One of my favorite mystery writers is Michael Connelly. One of his recurring characters is Mickey Haller, who first appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer, so called because he operates his criminal defense practice from his Lincoln town car. All of Connelly’s books are intricate and character driven. The latest Mickey Haller book is Gods of Guilt.”
Finally Shameema Rahman choose another film entry.
Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India
This is a wonderful movie about the colonial land tax situation. It shows how unity can help to overcome community struggle. The movie is based on a fictional novel about the land tax laws under the colonial system in British India and combines socio-economic, religious, legal, and political issues, which are all resolved through a very simple cricket match. The film has been acclaimed as ” best movie” by multiple awards.
So did we include your favorite work of legal fiction? Or have you found your next good read from our list of legal fiction favorites?
Anything by George Pelecanos. Sure, they are showing the other side of legal fiction, the crime, and detective work needed to solve a crime, but those elements are often glossed over in “legal fiction.”