Beyond John Grisham: A Guide to Legal Fiction

by Terri Frank
published in Reading

“I’ve read all of John Grisham’s books. What other legal fiction authors would you recommend?”

This is probably the most common reading question I’m asked at my day job as a librarian. For a long time, there was only one other author that wrote like Grisham – Scott Turow. Turow is often credited with inventing the legal fiction genre when he penned Presumed Innocent in 1987. Grisham refined it further and made it a brand. In recent years, however, more authors have entered the courtroom resulting in a more diverse and plentiful selection. Thankfully, this is now such a crowded genre that I could never do it “justice” in one article. But, here are a few contenders and why it’s important for writers to stack some legal fiction into their proverbial reading briefcases.

Opening Statements

Legal stories, frequently referred to as legal thrillers, belong to the mystery genre. The protagonist is always an attorney who, despite adversarial forces, uncovers the true facts of a case through exhaustive investigation and knowledge of the law. The suspenseful plot escalates to the eventual courtroom setting where the attorney skillfully uses legal procedures to save the day and justice prevails.

For writers reading legal stories, it’s worth noticing an important distinction between them and traditional mysteries. In mysteries, the author places clues throughout the story in plain view of the reader. The answer to the mystery is always there if the reader looks hard enough. For simplicity’s sake, think of the “Encyclopedia Brown” books for children and how a trivial open door mentioned at the very beginning of the story ends up being the clue to the whole case. In legal thrillers, however, the author often withholds vital information from the reader until the final courtroom showdown. Then, the attorney reveals a new piece of evidence or gets a witness to make a startling confession. (Think of Tom Cruise interrogating Jack Nicholson in the film “A Few Good Men.”).

The Prosecutors

Alafair Burke:

Burke writes a series of books following fictional Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Her books represent a new generation of legal fiction where character development and relationships are valued just as much as the courtroom scenes. Fun facts: Real-life prosecutor Burke co-writes the “Under Suspicion” series with legendary mystery author Mary Higgins Clark and is the daughter of author James Lee Burke.

Robert Dugoni:

Thanks to a creative writing degree and time spent as both a reporter and an attorney, Dugoni is perhaps the best author in this genre you may not know. He has twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for Legal Fiction. His books follow lawyer David Sloane who becomes disillusioned after years of defending large corporations. He decides to flip roles and become a prosecutor. He goes after a toy company for harming innocent children in “Bodily Harm” and the U.S. military in “Wrongful Death” following the preventable loss of a soldier in Iraq. Start with the first book in the series, “The Jury Master,” to follow the storylines about Sloane’s wife, son and his eventual return to defense law.

Robert K. Tanenbaum:

Although Tanenbaum has been around for a while, it’s worth reading his latest works as he deftly takes on modern issues such as charter schools. Start anywhere you want in his 28 book series about New York City prosecutor Butch Karp. The only thing you need to know is that character Marlene Ciampi is both Karp’s wife and chief investigator.

Marcia Clark:

People are sometimes surprised when I recommend books by one of the prosecutors from the O.J. Simpson trial. Yet, they always come back and say how much they enjoyed and learned from them. Clark’s “Rachel Knight” series revolves around an L.A. attorney assigned to the special trials division handling the most unusual cases. Readers report that Clark lays out complex plots and technical terms in an easier to follow structure than legal thrillers by other authors.

Christopher Darden and Dick Lochte

This duo co-authored the “Nikki Hall” books. There were only two books in the series, but they are unique in that they spotlight an African-American female prosecutor. Other books by this writing duo follow a defense lawyer named Mercer Early and his life at a mostly African-American law firm.

The Defense

Steve Martini:

In “The Jury,” Martini’s star defense lawyer Paul Madriani tells a witness “You’ll have to speak louder for the record.” This is a small detail that other authors might skip in favor of dialogue that advances the plot, but it’s a line that makes the scene feel more real. Martini has the advantage of being a former attorney, but he also reads Quentin Tarantino screenplays to get his dialogue down pat.

Lisa Scottoline:

After reading Grisham and Turow, Scottoline noticed the absence of female attorneys and thus was born her “Rosato and Associates” series. Each title follows a different attorney in the all-female firm. The books feature a lot of wisecracking and warmth among the attorneys who make frequent reappearances in each other’s stories. It’s essential to read this series in order beginning with “Everywhere that Mary Went.”

James Grippando:

Jack Swytek is a Cuban-American defense attorney who speaks very poor Spanish. The city of Miami is as much a character in the book as a setting. His abuela (grandmother) and her delicious recipes add charm to the twenty five novel series which can be read in any order. It’s worth a visit to the author’s website to read his funny, comforting advice for aspiring writers.

Closing Arguments

Presently, legal fiction is evolving into so much more than it was when John Grisham’s “The Firm” hit bestseller lists twenty-five years ago this summer. Readers are gravitating to books with more diversity among attorneys and clients, smart humor and dialogue, and plots that enlighten them about contemporary legal issues.

Legal stories that explore relationships and the city outside the courtroom are also popular and, as a result, the percentage of pages spent in the courtroom has shrunken some. One final recommendation is “Small Great Things” by Jodi Picoult which blends all of these elements seamlessly into an outstanding example of modern legal fiction. Case closed.

Please join the discussion and share your favorite legal thrillers below!

Terri Frank is a professional librarian and holds a Master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Michigan. When she’s not working in a library, she’s probably visiting a library with her husband and two kids. Her current writing projects include a novel about a tuberculosis sanitorium.

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