the death of mystery writer Jeremiah Healy. The Mystery community is stunned and the postings of photos and outpouring memories is huge. My heart and sympathy go out to Sandra Balzo, his wife, and his family and friends. Such a loss. Jerry was so supportive of other writers and friends. Trying to take his death in, I perused some of his books and then came across this article he wrote in 2000 for the Mystery Readers Journal: Legal Mysteries issue.
The Popularity of Legal Thrillers
Why do we – and here I mean both readers and authors – seem to have
such a fascination with the sub-genre of crime novels now known as
"Legal Thrillers?" While most of my published fiction has involved John
Francis Cuddy, a private investigator in Boston, many of the thirteen
books and forty short stories in that series have dealt with issues
confronting the justice system, such as reporters’ confidential sources (Yesterday’s News), the right to assisted suicide a la Dr. Kevorkian (Right To Die), and revenge killings of male divorce attorneys by disgruntled husband/opponents (The Only Good Lawyer). Also, in July, 1998, a legal thriller of my own entitled The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn focused
on the "John-Grisham-meets-Elmore-Leonard" problem of a female criminal
defense attorney being targeted by the very murder defendant she gets
out on bail. Accordingly, this sub-genre has been on my mind for a
while, and I have some thoughts about the reasons for its popularity.
First, I think we baby-boomers have contributed substantially to
this phenomenon. All of us remember vividly Raymond Burr on television
as Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. In addition, major legal cases
dominated the news at significant points in our lives: the Army-McCarthy
hearings in the fifties, the Manson Family trials in the sixties, and
the Watergate proceedings in the seventies. All of these, I believe,
whetted our appetites for the "renaissance" begun with Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent
in 1987 and continued ever since by John Grisham, Jay Brandon, Lia
Matera, William Bernhardt, Perri O’Shaughnessy, Paul Levine, Lisa
Scottoline, Philip Margolin, Barbara Parker, and Steve Martini.
Also, I think people who aren’t themselves lawyers are fascinated
both by how the law works–and perhaps more importantly, by how it
doesn’t work–in specific areas of human relations. In effect, the author
of a legal thriller is explaining the courtroom to the reader just as
the writer of a medical thriller explains the operating room, with any
professional jargon first identified, so the reader can vicariously
experience the sense of being a litigator or a surgeon without having to
plow through a textbook on Criminal Procedure or Human Anatomy.
I’m hoping this wave of popularity will last a bit longer, as my
next book–currently being submitted to editors by my agent–is a legal
thriller about a young Boston lawyer who grows disenchanted with her
large-firm practice and allies herself with an older criminal-defense
attorney. Their first case together: the brutal murder of a homeless
man, allegedly by an Irish-American "hermit" living in a "cave."
Of course, as a "recovering" lawyer myself, I have to concede one
possible, if cynical, reason for the popularity of legal thrillers:
Given that there are a million attorneys currently alive in this
country, and that many of them are unhappy practicing law, courtroom
novels are simply being bought up in huge numbers by frustrated lawyers
wanting to learn the "trick" of becoming successful novelists.
Good reading to all, and thanks to Janet Rudolph for offering this opportunity to express my views.
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