Friday, May 14, 2010

Was Shakespeare right? ; )

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.


  1. Congratulations on being invited to guest blog, I look forward to your post!

    I enjoyed reading today's examples. Sirgurdadottir's book sounds interesting, something to check out for me. Both Funerals are Fatal and Halloween Party are such good books too. And thanks for bringing up Perry Mason, I realy enjoyed that series! Another book that I enjoyed which featured an attorney is A Certain Justice by P. D. James which takes a fairly in-depth look at the criminal justice system.

  2. Book Mole - Thank you : ). I have to say, I was quite honored at that invitation.

    I agree completely about After the Funeral and Hallowe'en Party. They're fine books on several levels, as most of Christie's work is. And I really think you'd like Sigurdardóttir's book. There's wonderful dialogue, fascinating relationships, a realistic portrait of an investigation, and of course, a solid intellectual mystery, too.

    And finally, thanks for the P.D. James recommendation. I confess that I haven't read that one. I'm going to have to check it out.

  3. I'm so glad you included Perry Mason in your list. His character is quite interesting. I like the way he did seem to change over the years.

    Good luck on your tour, looking forward to all your stops (especially the one at Thoughts in Progress).

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Isn't Perry Mason interesting? I've always thought that there was more there than meets the eye. And I think it makes sense for major characters to learn and grow and change over time. Real people do, after all.

    Thanks for the good wishes on the blog tour. I'm excited about it, and very excited to have been offered a stop at Thoughts in Progres. Now, if I can just remember where I packed everything ; ).

  5. The nice thing about lawyers in crime fiction is that we can use them for our different purposes--they can be good guys, bad guys, or victims!

    At Malice Domestic, they handed out a bag of books to all the registered guests. One of the books was a Poisoned Pen Press book--"Shoot the Lawyer...Twice." It's on my reading list. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - You put that quite well; lawyers really can serve whatever purpose we want in our writing, and we can make them sympathetic or not.

    That book from Poisoned Pen Press sounds interesting; what a title! I'm going to have to see if I can get a copy.

  7. I enjoy many legal mysteries - even a few of John Grisham's (though not all, as plotting isn't his strong point. He's very good on atmosphere, though). Philip Margolin is very good, though some of his latest novels are more oreinted towards political thrillers. Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent had a great twist, and I'm interested to see that more than 20 years later he has written a direct sequel (though some of the characters in P.I. have made appearences in subsequent novels.)
    Does this post mean that you have read Last Rituals now, Margot? I hope you enjoyed it (or are enjoying it)!
    Asa Larsson's excellent series has a main character, Rebecka Martinsson, who is a corporate lawyer. She hates it, though, and usually manages to get assigned unusual (non-corporate) tasks.

  8. Maxine - Thanks; yes, I've read Last Rituals , and thoroughly enjoyed it. I really do appreciate the suggestion. Yrsa Sigurdardóttir has a lot of talent, I think, and I recommend the novel. By the way, folks, Maxine's excellent review of Last Rituals is here. I'm looking forward to reading My Soul to Take....

    You're right about Grisham, too. He creates terrific atmosphere, and I actually thought of including mention of some of his novels. Sometimes it's hard to include every author one thinks of; at least it is for me. I'm always afraid these posts will turn into tomes : ). Grisham does include some interesting attorney characters, though.

    I'm also glad you mentioned Margolin. Some of his stuff really is good! And I think it's time for me to "meet" Rebecka Larsson : ).

  9. That's cool about Martin's blog. I'm reading one of his books now and loving it. Let us know when and I'll check it out.


  10. So great when a good blogger visits another good blog :D

    The only real life lawyer I know is a friend of our family and an icon of integrity, but if you look for a suspect with means and opportunity, a lawyer will often be an obvious choice. I like stories with lawyers provided that we don´t get too much legal jargon. (IF I have to read jargon of any kind, I very much prefer forensics).

  11. Is there any profession more represented than the legal one in crime fiction?

  12. Clarissa - Isn't Martin Edwards a terrific writer! I'm a serious fan of his Lake District series. I'll be visiting his blog on 19 June and it's be great to have you visit.

    Dorte - Why, thank you : ). You're very kind. You have a very good point about legal jargon. No doubt about it, jargon can really detract from one's enjoyment of a book. or forensics jargon.... I think I prefer forensics, too, actually. And I am glad your friend has so much integrity. In crime fiction, though, you're right; it's easy for a lawyer to become a criminal...

    Patti - Good question! I'd say just law enforcement would have more representation. And if you include that in the "legal" category, then I would say there really is none.

  13. I have liked Linda Fairstein's books which feature Alex Cooper who is an assistant DA in the New York sex crimes unit. She does team up with two cops in a way that only seems to happen in the New York justice system but a lot of the focus of the books is on the legal aspects of each case...what constitutes acceptable evidence, making victims and witnesses feel comfortable enough to talk etc. I find those aspects of the books very interesting.

  14. Bernadette - Thanks for mentioning Fairstein's books. I agree with you that the "behind the scenes" look at the legal process really can be awfully fascinating. I admit that too much legal jargon can be a bit off-putting. The process, though - the way that the system really works, and how it's used - I find really interesting.