The Legal Thriller
Anyone who writes a legal thriller must be influenced by John Grisham. I know I was and still am. Some of his books are about lawyers rather than the law, but I think he is at his best when his stories have legal principles at their heart. His first novel ‘A Time to Kill’ examined the dilemma between right and wrong, and legal or illegal. The main protagonist in the novel is lawyer Jake Brigance and he believes his client Carl Lee Hailey by killing the assailants of his daughter ( a very brutal rape ) had the moral high ground. Can Brigance ensure Hailey is acquitted on the grounds of insanity and how will the lawyer try to ensure that happens. It is a gripping tale because as Grisham says in the opening note ‘The greatest dramas occur not on screens or stages, but daily in countless courtrooms across this country’ The same can be said of courtrooms in the UK although the drama is often concealed behind the more clinical approach of barristers and solicitors in English courts.
When I wrote my novel ‘Crucial Evidence’ I wanted to tell a story about a female barrister who believed passionately in justice and was prepared to compromise her own career in order to ensure her client received a fair trial. When the novel was first published and I searched for the book on Amazon using the title ‘Crucial Evidence’, John Grisham’s novel Sycamore Row came up on the screen side by side with mine own novel. I have finally read the book, which is described as a sequel to’ A Time to Kill.’ Jake Brigance is once again battling racial prejudice when a rich white male, Seth Hubbard, kills himself and leaves the bulk of his wealth to his cleaning lady, a younger black female, and specifically disinherited his children and grandchildren. Hubbard has instructed Jake to fight any attempt by his family to set aside the will. The trial has its ups and downs and illustrates one of the interesting things about this type of novel – the reader is encouraged to form a view of the witnesses, the judges rulings and the jury’s verdict.
Grisham understands the way lawyers work,( something that writers of police procedurals don’t often show in their descriptions of police work) and their was one passage in Sycamore Row which I thought reflected my own feelings about being an advocate. Jake’s wife asks him ‘Why do you want to be a trial lawyer?’
And he gives this answer, ‘Because I love it. It’s what being a lawyer is all about. Being in a courtroom, in front of a jury, is like being in an arena, or on the field. The competition is fierce. The stakes are high. The gamesmanship is intense. There will be a winner and a loser. There is a rush of adrenaline each time the jury is led in and seated.’
John Grisham and class actions
I’ve been away and out of contact with the internet again, but at least it has given me enough time to read some books and to do some thinking about my next novel. I’ve written the first 22,000 words so a long way to go on that. As far as the reading, I found a copy of The King of Torts by John Grisham and read it in a couple of days. It’s an awful title but seems to derive from the way class actions are brought in the USA. The protagonist is Clay Carter, a youngish lawyer working for the Office of Public Defender in Wasington DC. He is assigned the case of Tequila Watson who, inexplicably, has become a killer and murdered an acquaintance known as Pumpkin. Carter begins to explore Watson’s backgound and is puzzled by the lack of motive and the absence of any history of violence. Watson is a drug addict who has been in a rehabilitation program and when Carter makes enquiries at the project he is not convinced he is being told the whole truth.
Overworked and underpaid, Carter is ripe pickings for Max Pace who tells him a major Drug Company is willing to pay compensation to Pumpkin’s family and his legal fees if he is acting on their behalf. The secret he must keep is that Watson along with others were treated as guinea pigs with a drug that ‘cures’ addiction but has a side effect in about 8% of the addicts that makes them a killer. Carter quits his job with the Office of Public Defender and earns himself about $15 million. He justifies his actions to himself by arguing that Watson has no defence to the charge of murder. I don’t know if that would be the case in the US but I think under English Law he would have a defence to murder of not to manslaughter. If the drug that turned him into a killer was given to him by the staff at the rehabilitation project as part of his care program then he would be able to claim his mental state was not self-induced and therefore he was not responsible. I had a similar case when Diego Cogolato killed the dress designer Ossie Clark, under the influence of a combination of illegal drugs and prescribed drugs that made him believe Clark was the devil and he heard voices telling him to kill.
Carter is then told about another drug that is widely prescribe and has the side effect of causing growths in the bladder. He files a claim against the Pharmaceutical Company and advertises for other users to contact his law firm so that a large number of complainants are joined in the same action against the company, a class action. These actions enable lawyers involved in the proceedings to earn large sums of money. The novel describes the way these proceedings take place and the dangers in them. I won’t say anymore because it will spoil the story. In the UK these type of actions are rare although the courts can give consent for what is called a Group Litigation Order but the proceedings are controlled by the Judge. Also cost capping orders are made which limit the amount lawyers can earn. There are no juries in civil cases of this type in England so exemplary damages are rarely given. Although there are proposals to have this kind of collective action in certain cases at the moment any move towards that is very slow.
This book perhaps under scores why American writers of legal thrillers have so much more to write about as the US system provides more drama than the UK one. I was certainly told that it was very difficult to sell a legal thriller/mystery to the publishing industry and that only John Grisham can write them. Are there any writers using the English Criminal Justice System as Grisham uses the US one?
Work in Progress
I was asked to do this by Catherine Lumb. I think it’s an interesting excercise to make you think about your writing.
What is the title of the book/WIP?
The book is called Crucial Evidence. Apart from WIP it’s had about five titles including ‘Defending the Innocent.’ and ‘Missing Alibi’
Where did the idea come from?
I know that defending an innocent man is the hardest thing a barrister can do. I expanded on that theme so that my main character goes to unusal lengths to ensure her client gets a fair trial.
What Genre is your WIP.
It’s a crime novel, legal drama.
Which actors would you chose to play your characters in a movie rendition.
I am tempted to say Maxine Peake as she plays a very similar character in Silk, but prehaps she should play my police officer, Alexis Seymour, and Anne Marie Duff could play Cassie Hardman, my barrister, but perhaps she’s too attractive for Cassie.
What is your one sentence synopsis of your WIP
Female barrister Cassie Hardman, sure her client is innocent of murder, searches for a crucial witness, and with Police woman, Alexis Seymour, finds the witness and then identifies the real killer.
Is your WIP published or represented?
I have sent the book to a number of Literary Agents without any sucess, but this year the consulting editor of a major publishing house asked to read the whole book. She didn’t want to take it any further after reading the novel, but she made some suggestions about the book and I am now redrafting it with those in mind with the intention of resubmitting it again.
How long did it take to write it?
About three years so far. I keep on rewriting it when I see flaws or I’ve had comments about it from Literary Agents, which make sense to me.
What other books within your genre would you compare it with.
‘Presumed Innocent’ by Scott Turow, the outstanding example of a legal thriller, and John Grisham’s ‘A Time to Kill.’
Which authors inspired you to write this WIP
Charles Dickens. ‘Bleak House’ is a great legal drama with strong identifiable characters. You can find the same types in the legal profession today.
Tell us anything else that might pique our interest in this project?
If you have ever asked yourself how can a barrister represent a person they believe is guilty, you will find the answer.