Lawyers have come in for their fair share of negative press. Even Shakespeare vilified them in Act IV of his play King Henry VI. There are lawyer jokes galore, and the stereotype of the shady lawyer and the “ambulance chaser” are fixtures in popular culture. And yet, when someone’s arrested for a crime, one of the first people she or he calls is…a lawyer. Lawyers are an integral part of the criminal justice system, and when someone’s caught up in that system, the lawyer can seem like a lifeline. Lawyers are also integral to other parts of our lives, too; they help us with wills, adoptions, business matters and more, and we rely (sometimes completely) on their expertise. Since lawyers are such an important part of the criminal justice system of most countries, it’s no surprise that they also appear in lots of crime fiction.
Many of Agatha Christie’s novels and stories feature lawyers. I’ll just touch on a few examples. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), we meet Mr. Entwhistle, attorney for the Abernethie family. He travels to the Abernethie home when a client of his, Richard Abernethie, dies suddenly (although not entirely unexpectedly). After the funeral, Abernethie’s youngest sister, Cora Lansquenet says that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone tries to hush her up. Still, Mr. Entwhistle knows that Cora has a habit of blurting out awkward statements that have some truth to them. So he begins to wonder. His fears seem to be confirmed when, the next day, Cora Lansquenet is herself brutally murdered. So Entwhistle goes to visit Hercule Poirot and shares his concerns with the great detective. Poirot agrees to investigate the matter, and visits the Abernethie home. In the end, he finds out the truth about Richard Abernethie’s death and the surprising motive for Cora Lansquenet’s murder. Throughout the novel, Mr. Entwhistle plays an important role, too. He gathers some information, interviews the suspects, and is helpful in getting Poirot an important clue as to the motive behind the events in the story.
In Hallowe’en Party, Hercule Poirot investigates the drowning murder of Joyce Reynolds. On the day of the murder, Joyce boasted that she saw a murder. Later that evening, she’s drowned in a bucket of water at a Hallowe’en party. Ariadene Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, asks Poirot to look into the case. It’s not long before Poirot realizes that Joyce’s death is probably connected to another death, so he begins to research some of what’s been going on in the town of Woodleigh Common. With help from Superintendent Spence, who lives in the town, Poirot is soon introduced to Mr. Jeremy Fullerton, senior partner in an old and well-respected local law firm. At first, Fullerton isn’t keen to give Poirot a lot of information, but in the end, he gives Poirot some very useful information about the town’s history. Eventually Poirot links Joyce Reynold’s death to a disappearance and to a forged will that was handled by Fullerton’s firm.
In James Yaffe’s “Mom” series, we meet Ann Swenson, Public Defender for Mesa Grande, Colorado. Ann’s young for the job, but she’s not afraid to go up against the District Attorney’s office if she needs to do so. Her concern is a fair hearing for her office’s clients. When she realizes that her office could use an investigator, she hires Dave, a former Bronx police officer, to work for the Public Defender’s Office, and help investigate cases. Dave agrees, since New York no longer holds the appeal for him that it did while his wife, Shirley, was alive. Dave’s soon settled into Mesa Grande, and the only thing he really misses about New York is his mother. “Mom” always enjoyed discussing Dave’s cases with him, and often provided really helpful insights, ideas and clues to help him solve them. So he’s delighted when she makes the move to Mesa Grande, too, and it’s not long before she’s involved in cases there.
Lawyers play very important roles in the criminal justice system, so it’s also not surprising that there are also plenty of fictional sleuths who are lawyers. Perhaps the most famous is Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Mason starred in eighty novels and was immortalized on television by actor Raymond Burr. Interestingly enough, Mason’s character changes somewhat through the years. In the first Mason novels, he’s a smoker who’s also fond of his whiskey. He also isn’t afraid of a fistfight if it comes to that. Later in the series, he becomes a little more respectable, and there’s not nearly as much of the “hardboiled” element in the later Mason novels. Perry Mason’s friend, secretary and would-be wife is Della Street, who not only manages his professional life for him, but has also gotten into dangerous situations on her own on his behalf. Mason’s also aided by Paul Drake, who owns the Drake Detective Agency, and does quite a bit of Mason’s “legwork” for him.
There are more recent examples of lawyers as fictional sleuths, too. For example, Martin Edwards’ Harry Devlin series features Devlin, who’s a Liverpool attorney. He’s not exactly highbrow; in fact, he and his partner, Jim Crusoe, share a somewhat “down-at-the-heel” office for most of the series. But Harry has a strong sense of justice, and he’s always fascinated by the deeper motivations behind murder. While Harry isn’t a “hardboiled” sleuth – not really – he does sometimes get himself into dangerous situations. That’s very often because Harry takes personal responsibility for the cases he takes, and that includes investigating them.
Michael Connelly’s Mickey Haller first appears in The Lincoln Lawyer. Haller
Is accustomed to defending the “down and out” of Los Angeles. In fact, he often has “office hours” in his Lincoln Town Car (thus, the title). Then, he’s hired for a big case. Louis Ross Roulet, a wealthy real estate salesman and playboy, has been charged with the brutal beating and sexual assault of an aspiring actress. Despite appearances, Haller isn’t sure that Roulet’s guilty, so he investigates the case. As it turns out, Haller’s up against forces far more sinister than a simple date-gone-wrong. We meet Haller again in The Brass Verdict, when he works with his half-brother, Harry Bosch, to solve the murder of another attorney, Jerry Vincent.
Then, there’s Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s sleuth, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Thóra lives and works in Reykjavík. She’s a single mother of a teenage boy and a six-year-old girl, and sometimes finds juggling her law practice and her home life difficult. In Last Rituals, Thóra is hired by the wealthy German Guntlieb family to investigate the gruesome and strange murder of their son, Harald. Harald Guntlieb was living in Iceland as a student when he was killed, so the Guntlieb family representative, Matthew Reich, travels to Iceland and he and Thóra begin to work together to find out how and why Harald Guntlieb was killed. At first, the police think they have the right man in Hugi Thórisson, a university friend of Guntlieb’s. But as Thóra and Matthew investigate, they find more and more reason to suspect that the police are wrong. In the end, the two sleuths find connections between Harald Guntlieb’s murder, the medieval history of witchcraft, and some dark secrets that several of Guntlieb’s university friends are hiding.
In The Legal Limit, Martin Clark introduces an interesting attorney protagonist in Mason Hunt, commonwealth attorney for Patrick County, Virginia. Mason and his brother, Gates grew up locally, so everyone knows them. Mason worked hard, took advantage of scholarships, went to law school, and has become successful. Gates, on the other hand, wasted every opportunity he had, and has become a small-time drug dealer. He lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money his mother gives him. Late one night, Mason and Gates are on their way home when they meet Wayne Thompson, Gates’ rival for his girlfriend. The two get into an argument and before anyone knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason’s sense of duty to his brother leads him to help Gates cover up the murder. Time doesn’t seem to teach Gates Hunt anything, and years later, he’s jailed for cocaine trafficking. He begs his now-successful brother to help him find a way out of his prison sentence. Mason refuses. Then, unexpectedly, Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll accuse Mason of the crime. It’s not an idle threat, either, as Mason soon learns when a grand jury indicts him for the crime. Now, the two brothers are at war as Gates fights to free himself from jail and Mason fights to prove his innocence.
Lawyers may have a bad reputation, but they’re essential to crime fiction. Which are your favorites?
On Another Note…
I’d like to thank fellow crime fiction writer – and attorney – Martin Edwards for a very kind invitation to guest blog at his excellent Do You Write Under Your Own Name?. Edwards’ Lake District series is one of my personal favorites, and he’s got a host of other well-written and well-regarded novels and stories to his credit as well. He’s also an expert on classic crime fiction. So this is a real honor for me. The Magical Mystery Blog Tour will now include a stop in the U.K. at Do You Write Under Your Own Name? on 19 June, when I’ll be blogging about crime fiction authors (and Edwards is one of them) who write both novels and short stories.