Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Popularity of Legal Thrillers by the late Jeremiah Healy

I am so saddened by 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.

Jeremiah Healy:
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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