Jan. 23, 2021
The Appeal of Legal Thrillers
If I asked you to tell me a lawyer joke, I bet you wouldn’t have a hard time coming up with one. It’s true. Lawyers have been the butts of jokes forever, deserving or not, but they’ve also been the focus of countless beloved television shows, movies, and books.
America’s fascination with legal fiction, whether on the big screen, the e-reader screen, or between the pages of a nail-biting trade paperback continues to hold steady. Hollywood might have declared the courtroom drama dead, but readers can’t get enough of the genre. As I write this feature, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book written over 60 years ago that explores post-Depression racial injustices in the legal system, is sitting pretty on Amazon’s Top 100 bestseller’s list. The novels, A Time for Mercy by John Grisham and The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly, have held their own on the New York Times’ and USA Today’s bestselling lists for weeks.
John Grisham. Michael Connelly. Lisa Scottoline. Scott Turow. William Landay. Hank Phillippi Ryan. What do these authors have in common? They’ve written bestselling books that cast a glaring white light, or perhaps an atmospheric gray light, on the American legal system, blending procedural storytelling with edge-of-your-seat, heart-pounding suspenseful fiction. They’ve captured the attention of tens of thousands of readers who yearn for behind-the-scenes glimpses into a living, breathing justice system. Most people break out in a cold sweat when a jury summons arrives in their mail, but they’ll happily open the pages of a legal thriller and devour all its goodness.
When I began writing this feature, I intended to focus on the differences between procedural legal fiction and its younger, more unruly genre-defiant cousin, the legal thriller. But each time I started writing this piece, one question kept coming back to me, over and over.
Why is America Fascinated by Lawyers and Criminals?
Why do we crave books about murder, robbery, human trafficking, rape, white-collar crime, kidnapping—a never-ending list of stories about bad choices and horrific consequences? Why do we stay up well past our bedtimes reading courtroom dramas, spending hours during our free time letting the laundry wrinkle in the dryer, the dishes pile up in the sink, and ignoring the kids and the pets who want our attention so we can find out quicker what happens next in a legal thriller?
I can’t answer for everyone reading this article, but as a fiction writer who has written books about criminal defense, human trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, I can answer for myself. I can tell you why I write these books, and why I think legal storytelling draws readers into its dark, delicate, and salacious folds.
A June 18, 2012 BBC.com post titled Why Are We So Curious, asserts that “we just love to know the answers to things, even if there’s no obvious benefit.” Maybe, in some sense, that is true, but legal fiction readers’ curiosity isn’t piqued because of unproductive inquisitiveness. It’s stimulated by a deeper motivation; to understand the monstrous behaviors that lurk beneath the surface of everyday individuals accused of committing unspeakable acts of violence and betrayal; to make sense of the incomprehensible.
“Equal Justice Under the Law”
Those words, inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C., are written in the 14th Amendment and declare that no persons shall be denied “equal protection of the laws.” But let’s be honest. Justice is a fickle moral concept, fluid, always changing based on circumstances, twisted and molded to fit each side’s arguments.
The readers I’ve met and spoken to read legal fiction stories not because they want to be lawyers, but because they want to understand criminals. They want to know the “why” behind the action. They want to believe in humanity and try to make sense out of the bad stuff that happens in the world. Exploring these questions in fiction is safe. Entertainment allows us to walk in another person’s shoes and to develop a broader concept of justice.
Novels like William Landay’s Defending Jacob and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill are rich with legal prose and courtroom procedure, but they’re also stories about personal conflict and family trauma. Defending Jacob is about a prosecuting attorney whose son is accused of murdering a classmate and the little, day-to-day choices we as parents make that color the innocent guilty. A Time to Kill asks readers to consider how they would respond if their 10-year-old daughter was raped. These are stories that ask the reader to put themselves into the shoes of the criminal, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge, the jury, and the families of the accused and convicted.
There are many reasons why legal fiction writers write the stories they do. Sometimes they choose the story and other times the story chooses them. I write the stories I write because I believe the more we understand about each other, the better shot humanity has at making it. I believe we only fix problems when we truly understand their root and how to nurture the good, not the evil.
Legal fiction will always be entertainment. It will always speed up the legal process for the sake of moving the story along and you won’t pass the state bar exam after reading a handful of books in the legal fiction genre, but what legal fiction will always do is make the reader ask why.
About the Author
Piper Punches is the author of family dramas, legal dramas, and psychological thrillers, including The Murder Lawyer, The Waiting Room, and the novella, Missing Girl. She resides in the far western suburbs of the St. Louis Metro area with her husband and youngest daughter (the oldest is all grown up and adulting) and Mr. Buttons, the dog, Breezy, the cat, and Cedric, the gecko lizard.