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Legal Mysteries

From courtroom dramas to lawyers investigating crimes on behalf of their clients, legal mysteries and thrillers have engaged audiences for longer than you think. In this episode, Brook and Sarah discuss mysteries with a legal theme.


The Leavenworth Case (1878) Anna Katharine Green

Erle Stanley Gardner (creator of Perry Mason)

The Firm (1991) John Grisham

Matlock (1986-1995) NBC and ABC

Runaway Jury (1996) John Grisham

The Client (1993) John Grisham

A Time to Kill (1989) John Grisham

A Few Good Men (1992) Rob Reiner

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) Agatha Christie

Erin Brockovich (2000) Steven Soderbergh

Lisa Scottoline

Final Appeal (1994) Lisa Scottoline

The Lincoln Lawyer (2005) Michael Connolley

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011 film) Brad Furman

The Lincoln Lawyer (2022-2023 series)

Goliath (2016-2021 series) David E. Kelley and David Shapiro

Lydia Poët (2023 series) Guido Iuculano and Davide Orsini

How to Get Away with Murder (2014-2020 series) ABC

Law and Order (1990-present series) NBC

The Practice (1997-2004 series) David E. Kelley

Spiral (2005-2019 series) Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin

Murder in Provence (2022 series) Britbox

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to clued in mystery I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi, Brook.
BrookHi, Sarah. Are you ready to talk about legal thrillers?
SarahI am. But before we do that, let me just share that my heart is racing a little bit because I know that this Friday, members of the Cartel are going to get the first section of what we have written in our listener input story.
BrookI know. It’s a little bit like being in the witness stand, Sarah. I’m a little nervous. But I think that everyone’s going to have a lot of fun reading how the story has opened and how things are getting started and then will be able to give us more input as we go along and help shape the mystery.
SarahYeah. I think it will be fun and you know once it’s gone out on Friday, I hope my heart rate returns to normal. Today we are talking about legal mysteries and let me start by introducing them. So, courtroom drama has been a source of entertainment for centuries, with early newspapers reporting on revelations made from witness boxes. This is still true today. I’m sure we can all think of trials that we have followed on TV or more recently through social media. Early mystery fiction authors recognize the appeal and readers have enjoyed legal themed mysteries for decades. Anna Katharine Green’s book The Leavenworth Case, which was published in1878, featured a lawyer as its sleuth. In addition to introducing many of the tropes that readers of detective fiction are familiar with, the book was one of if not the first to use courtroom scenes. The book’s treatment of circumstantial evidence, also led it to being used at Yale Law School for several years as a textbook. And though she was not a lawyer Green was familiar with the law having worked to support her father who was a criminal lawyer. And we’ll see this a lot. A lot of authors of legal fiction are lawyers themselves. And this is true for Erle Stanley Gardner, who in the 1930s introduced readers to Perry Mason, who would go on to appear in 82 novels, six films, several radio plays, and television series. Most recently it was a 2020 series on HBO. I haven’t read any of the books. but I think this would be categorized as a courtroom drama.
SarahAnother lawyer turned author is John Grisham, whose second book The Firm, which was released in 1991, marks a real I think turning point in the modern legal thriller and it has sold millions of copies as have ah the rest of the books that Grisham has released. I thought we could start today, Brook by talking about whether we think there’s a difference between a courtroom drama and a legal thriller.
BrookThanks, Sarah and that is a great question. I hadn’t really thought about that as I was preparing, but I did come across the idea that a lot of times the books are called legal thrillers. And the shows are called legal dramas and that’s nowadays so I suppose it’s the same idea right? A legal drama versus courtroom drama. So, I’m interested in knowing why we call books thrillers and shows dramas when. Maybe they’re telling the same story.
SarahYeah, I I don’t know I mean when I think about the thrillers and and you know particularly about John Grisham’s books. A lot of them don’t actually have scenes in a courtroom, right? The protagonist is a lawyer or somehow involved in the legal system. And you know with The Firm, he’s fighting corruption, but not necessarily doing that in a courtroom and so we get some insight into what it’s like to be working in a law firm, but we don’t get that you know day to day facing the jury or the or the judge. But the courtroom dramas I think rely on you know we get that explosive piece of evidence that proves that the defendant is guilty or not and maybe in television better lends itself to to television. So you know I think Matlock was the same right? He would do some investigating, but the big reveal always happened in the courtroom.
BrookYeah, that is a great example and I’ve probably watched more than I’ve read in this sub-genre. And you know I think that they probably tell the story that way because if I think about Grisham movies, also you know Runaway Jury is one of them, The Client, A Time to Kill. Those do have courtroom scenes, but maybe that’s not the case in the actual book that the story is based on because as you say it translates much better visually then on the page. It’s pretty boring to read a courtroom scene because it’s you know, obviously a bunch of dialogue back and forth.
SarahYou know I think there’s some really powerful courtroom scenes that we can think of maybe one of the most famous being A Few Good Men, right? “You can’t handle the truth” and like that is such even just saying that now for like that’s such a powerful scene.
SarahAnd I think you’re right. I think it would be hard to convey that in a book.
BrookDefinitely yes, those scenes where that we have in our mind and there’s also the closing arguments in A Time to Kill that I feel the same way about that they’re so memorable and as you said like turns everything on its head in those scenes.
SarahSo Agatha Christie’s first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles originally had a courtroom scene in it, but her publisher persuaded her to change it and it ended up with that scene where you know all of the suspects are gathered in the same room and Poirot does his big reveal. So, I wonder if if her publisher must have just had that sense. I mean television didn’t exist at the time. But yeah it was it was less powerful to be reading that.
BrookYeah, great, great thought. And you know I think that was ah because as you said these courtroom dramas that we they were reading true crime in newspapers and then um fiction from there, I think that had been a little bit of the tradition. But he saw this opportunity to take it in a different direction and the entire you know genre changed then. Then the parlor explanation became the the tradition. Especially amateur sleuth mysteries which I don’t know if we can qualify Poirot is amateur. But that idea where we don’t ah you know, basically the cuffs are thrown on at the end and we don’t see what happens afterwards.
SarahAnd that’s such a ah great point, Brook that you know the legal mysteries tend to pick up where cozy mysteries and traditional mysteries finish, right? It’s after the culprit has been identified and we’re kind of taking the place of the jury and trying to figure out is this the right person? And so a lot of these books have the lawyer acting as a sleuth ah and fighting for their client, fighting to find that piece of evidence that proves that their client is not guilty of what they’ve been charged with.
BrookExactly and I think that’s where a lot of these are very high stakes mysteries because this is the end result. Justice is going to be served or thwarted you know and so we have this crusading attorney who’s really trying to find out the truth and I think that’s why it’s so easy to root for these guys and to be really invested in invested in the stories.
SarahAnd I think corruption is a big theme in a lot of these books, right? It’s the lawyer is up against either corruption in the um police investigation or corruption in the legal system that has enabled their client who is not guilty to be you know, almost at the point of being sent to prison. Um, and yeah I think it’s you know I I think about um the Julia Roberts movie Erin Brockovich right where as an audience we are really rooting for the underdog here.
BrookAbsolutely that show came to mind for me as well. Um, because we want her to win so badly like we really get behind these Attorney sleuths I think you could call them. As you say there’s so much conflict. There’s the conflict between yes prosecution and defense. But many times, there’s conflict between a defense team or you know depending on which side this story is being told from and then there’s usually some kind of romantic drama. So there’s some conflict there and you know systems fighting systems. There’s just so many layers of um of different kinds of conflict that I think it just drives the story.
SarahAbsolutely. I recently read a couple of books by Lisa Scottoline, who she’s also a lawyer. Um and I read the first and the last or the most recent books in her Mary Dinunzio series. And I liked these because the protagonist was a female lawyer. And you know I feel like a lot of the examples that we can think of it’s ah a male legal sleuth.
SarahIn the more recent book, Mary Dinunzio is partner of a firm that is predominantly female. And they’re being accused of reversed sexism and favoring hiring women. Um, and then someone ends up dying and so she’s investigating trying trying to protect her firm as well as investigating this murder and it was a really satisfying mystery.
BrookOh that sounds great. Interestingly enough, I also picked up a Scottaline this week because I had read Grisham. I had read Connelly you know and and as as you say a very kind of male centric version of some of these stories. And so I was interested and um I read the Last Appeal and really enjoyed it. I would definitely pick up some more Scottaline. And again of course a female attorney in that one who also is I thought this was nice. She’s going back to work after being a mom for a while so that was a a great I think um so I think that was like a great kind of a different twist on um on ah, an attorney as sleuth.
SarahAnd you mentioned Michael Connelly um and so he created the Lincoln Lawyer. Ah, who there’s a series of books that are quite good. The film with um, Matthew McConaughey and then the Netflix series that I think they’ve done two and I think there’s a third that um Netflix is is planning to produce. And they’re great like I I really enjoy those and again he is. There’s a bit of courtroom in ah in those. But he is doing a lot of active investigating as well.
BrookYeah I like the Netflix production I wasn’t sure if I would because um I got attached to Matthew McConaughey as Mickey but I like this shorter you know because it’s Netflix so these are what like 30- maybe 40-minute episodes and so they tie up the cases pretty quickly and yet they have the through line of his you know his ex-wife and in all the all the drama going on I thought they’ve done a really great job with that.
SarahAnd what I really like about Connelly is this world that he’s built, right? There’s a relationship between um, the Lincoln Lawyer series and the Bosch series and ah you know I don’t know if Netflix has that. But certainly the books do. And yeah I like this this world that he’s created.
BrookAnd I didn’t realize that, Sarah. I’ve never read any of the Bosch. I’ve never read any of the bosh novels but I love that a deep world building always gets me.
BrookAnother thing I think this subgenre is ripe for is the antihero and um, a really great example of this is um I have to admit I can’t remember the character name but Billy Bob Thornton plays the attorney in a series on Prime called Goliath. And um, he’s a little bit of that morally gray character. He drinks too much. He you know, kind of goes through the women quickly. He’s um has a really tough time in his personal life and yet he’s that very passionate attorney who does whatever it takes for his clients. And um I love the series and even though you definitely want him to win you know you kind of don’t like him at the same time. And so I think there’s a little bit of that lore about attorneys kind of being ruthless and maybe ah anti-heroic and it really comes through in that series.
SarahBut that’s a great recommendation I haven’t come across that series. So I’ve got an example of historical fiction featuring a lawyer and that is CJ Sansom’s series featuring Matthew Shardlake. It’s set in Tudor England and his character is a barrister and he is assigned um some cases where he has to do some investigating of his own and this is one of my favorite series. I really enjoy it.
BrookOh that is one of those suggestions you keep making, Sarah and I I just need to put it on my list and get to reading it because you and I both love Tudor-set stories and that actually reminds me of the Netflix. drama Lydia Poët who um, she is investigating murders and trying to fight for her right? to practice law also historical. But what I didn’t know and just learned this week is it’s based on. An actual person Lydia Poet was the first modern female Italian lawyer and um, her disbarment led to a movement to try to allow women to practice law and so that series is based in fact.
SarahI I love that, Brook and you have recommended that before and I have not yet watched it so I will add that to my list.
BrookWe made a trade.
SarahHave you seen This is on Netflix as well How to Get Away with Murder.
BrookYes I loved that series back in the day when it was on Network television.
SarahAnd so this features a group of law school students who are involved in a murder and use some of their knowledge. Ah, to get away with it. And yeah, it’s um Shonda Rhimes I think was the creator and it’s very good.
BrookI didn’t realize that was a Shonda Rhimes show, but I’m not the least bit surprised. Because it is like candy. You just want to binge each episode.
SarahSo I mentioned when I was introducing the topic that you know there’s lots of lawyers who end up writing legal fiction and I have two examples of very high profile lawyer authors and the first is Beverly Mclaughlin who is the former chief justice of Canada’s Supreme Court. And she’s written a couple of books featuring a criminal lawyer as the protagonist who has to prove that her client is not guilty of what they’ve been charged with. And those books are set here in Vancouver and so I you know not only because I think Beverly Mclaughlin is um, someone who you know has had a fantastic career. Ah love reading books that are set here. The other one and I I just started reading this book. Um, or the first book I think in this series is by Marcia Clark who herself was a I think she was the lead prosecutor in the OJ Simpson trial, which is one of those trials that was one of those trials that was followed very closely by the media and I think it was televised as well. So one of those ones that really captured people’s attention and she has written a series of books featuring a public prosecutor who does a little bit of investigating with the police.
BrookI would love to look into that. You know there’s a couple of classic TV courtroom dramas ah such as Law and Order and The Practice that I think I’ve seen probably every episode. When they come on television I I like oh I remember this one I don’t necessarily remember the outcome but um, you know they’re just so iconic.
SarahWhat I like about law and order is it shows that relationship between the police investigation and then the legal trial part of the the case. And so it kind of is that crossover where we talked about that you know, most books either end with the culprit being identified or begin with that trial and it’s that kind of crossover piece.
BrookYeah, great point. And we get to see the working relationship between those two entities and the conflict that arises.
SarahAnd this makes me think that a lot of the examples that we’ve talked about, Brook are based in the US with the exception of the Shardlake series that set in Tudor England, most of anything that we would see on TV or that we read is is based on the American justice system.
BrookYeah, that’s a great point and I wonder why that is, Sarah. And ah maybe it comes back to the idea of the corruption that you mentioned earlier I think that the way the system is set up um, gives a lot of opportunities for different things to go wrong and maybe different people’s agendas to play out.
SarahWell and and I think it just may speak to the different um legal systems. So I know in France there’s a series that I would categorize more as a police procedural. the translated name is Spiral and I think it’s on Netflix ah, and it’s. You know much more police investigation. But the way that the legal system there works is different in that they police kind of work alongside the judge from the very beginning. And so the judge actually does some of the investigating as well.
SarahAnd there’s another series this is in a British series, but it’s set in France and it’s called Murder in Provence and it features Roger Allum as the character of the judge. And he does some investigating. So I think it may just be that we’re more familiar with the American justice system.
BrookI find that there’s a strong connection in legal thrillers to maybe the hard boiled or noir style of writing. Very clipped short sentences. Fast paced, kind of a heavy reliance on dialogue. And for what it’s worth, I just feel like if you like legal dramas, you might want to hearken back and read some of the older ah hard-boiled or noir stories.
SarahThat’s a great recommendation and a a great observation, Brook. The Perry Mason the most recent version the one I think it was on on HBO, it was it felt very noir. And you know you kind of talked about the like washed up the trope of the washed up lawyer who you know might be alcoholic, maybe divorced, you know, kind of working on his own. Ah that is very similar to that PI/noir trope.
BrookAbsolutely yeah, you can draw a line.
SarahWell, Brook. This has been such a great conversation digging a little bit deeper into legal mysteries.
BrookIt has. It’s been great and once again we have some things to watch and read as usual and hopefully this added some ideas for your TBR list, listeners. Thanks for being here. Don’t forget to go out and join the newsletter and consider becoming a member of the Cartel. Join in on all the fun. Until next time, I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.