Friday, January 6, 2017

The Coming of Age of the Legal Mystery

 Having put together an epic Hammett versus Chandler smackdown, I thought I might do the same for Grisham versus Turow. Then I realized that, while I have read nearly all of Hammett and Chandler, I've only sampled a few of the works from the modern masters of the legal thriller – and Grisham continues to crank out novels at a pace faster than the human eye can read.

So, here instead, is a brief look at the coming of age of the legal mystery and thriller with a special focus on two of the top legal mysteries: Anatomy of a Murder and Presumed Innocent.

"Who you stealing from, Chandler or Hammett or Gardner?" the detective to his mystery writer friend in Dorothy B. Hughes, In A Lonely Place (1947).

Along with Encyclopedia Brown and Doc Savage, I read Erle Stanley Gardner as a kid. The Perry Mason novels series ran to over 80 novels and they were each as chewy as bubble gum.

The first novel I fell in love with was a legal mystery: Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (1960). I first read it to get a star pasted above my reading rocket ship in its trip to the moon and then immediately read it again, space flight be damned.

Mockingbird made me feel like I was peeking at the secrets of the adult world: the boogieman wasn't the bad guy and the good knight sometimes lost the jousts. Instinct told me these accounts spoke the truth: life was not what it seemed; life could be unfair.

In this same time period, the legal mystery was growing up. Published three years before Mockingbird, attorney Robert Traver's 1957 novel Anatomy of a Murder stood pivotal in the change between the fantasy courtroom mysteries wherein the killer confessed during cross-examination and the real-life dramas of the intricacies of the legal gaming between prosecutor and lawyer wherein innocence and guilt were the prizes and the client was of secondary importance.

Traver was acutely aware of this. His main character, attorney Paul Biegler, bemoans his secretary burying her nose in a mystery novel. "Mystery thriller indeed, I thought. Here she was working on a case that had more real mystery about it than a dozen contrived thrillers. . ." Whodunnit was known. The suspense lay in whether the lawyer would win the perpetrator his innocence.

The author described the mission of his book in his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition. "For a long time I had seen too many movies and read too many books and plays about trials that were almost comically phony and overdone, mostly in their extravagant efforts to overdramatize an already inherently dramatic human situation."

Readers responded. Anatomy of a Murder spent 29 weeks in the number one position on the New York Fiction Bestseller list.

Saul Bass's ingenious poster/opening sequence design for Anatomy of a Murder (film).
Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1959 Otto Preminger film version and for my part it was hard to read the book without thinking of Jimmy Stewart voicing the main character (I saw the movie first). The film is excellent, in fact, one of the key pleasures of the book is getting to spend more hours with the characters.

Has any actor ever had a greater first and second act to his career? Perhaps Stewart's success was due in part to following the coming of age of America. First he was the naive Boy Scout leader turned Senator, then the underdog Savings and Loan banker fighting the encroachment of Pottersville. In the 1950s and turning fifty, he could no longer play the gosh-shucks kid and he became the hero of films that took apart the conventions of various genres: Anatomy of a Murder (the courtroom drama), Vertigo (the detective fiction), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (the western).

Otto Preminger (left), Batman (right) Batman also came of age. :(

Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent has many of the trappings of a real-world courtroom mystery, but perhaps it is closer in spirit to that of a stinging satire, along the lines of Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital. Political intrigue is more important than justice, evidence is misplaced, experts aren't expert, and no one is presumed innocent – and no one is innocent.

Rusty Sabich is a prosecutor accused of murder and all of the tricks used by prosecutors (including those he used) are now played against him.

Anatomy of a Murder also had a cynical view of prosecutors. In his novel, Traver quoted John Mason Brown: "The prosecutor's by obligation is a special mind, mongoose quick, bullying, devious, unrelenting, forever baited to ensnare and by instinct dotes on confusing and flourishes on weakness."

Bonnie Bedelia (left) and Harrison Ford (right) and that might be Raul Julia lurking back there.
Again, it is hard for me to separate Rusty Sabich in the novel from the image provided me by Harrison Ford in the 1990 Alan Pakula adaptation of the book. I believe the novel works better on several levels, in part because of the cumulative intricacies of the broken judicial system, in part because of Turow's moving descriptions of Sabich's despair. "Every life, like every snowflake, seemed to me then unique in the shape of its miseries, and in the rarity and mildness of its pleasures." The book's ending is more satisfying. The final summation of the crime as Rusty imagines it comes from the pain of his character and the formality of having spent so many years propounding law and order. In the film, the twist ending is revealed with the killer confessing, which is a better cinematic choice.

Author: Robert Traver (pen name of John D. Voelker)
Novel: Anatomy of a Murder
Publication: 1957
Rank: #11 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 164030
Age of author at time of publication: 54.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: After serving for fourteen years as district attorney of the northern Michigan county where I was born, one chilly fall election day I found myself abruptly paroled from my job by the unappealable verdict of the electorate.
Significance: Changed the drama of the legal mystery from the fantastic whodunnit into that of a real life struggle for justice.

Author: Scott Turow
Novel: Presumed Innocent
Publication: 1987
Rank: #48 on the CWA list, #5 on the MWA list.
Word Count: 141704
Age of author at time of publication: 38.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
Opening line: This is how I always start: "I am the prosecutor."
Significance: Helped initiate the recent wave of legal thrillers.

Final note: Erle Stanley Gardner, Robert Traver, Scott Turow and John Grisham have each practiced law. This is a hard field to break into without a specialized background.


Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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