Monthly Archives: April 2009

Five Books About Lawyers

Recently, author Lisa Cotoggio asked authors Lee Child, Thomas O’Callaghan, Jonathan Hayes and me to list five books by category. Lee opted for books with music in them and included one of my favorites, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.

I chose to take on legal thrillers. Here’s what I had to say:

If books were honest in their depiction of the often slow and arcane American legal system, the term “legal thriller” would be quite the oxymoron. To keep the action moving, authors must sometimes sacrifice detail. That is not to say that good fiction can’t be accurate. As a criminal law professor and former prosecutor, I insist on procedural accuracy in my own writing, lest my students lose all respect for me. If NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher searches a suspect without a warrant, I might not spend a paragraph explaining the legal justification for the search, but trust me, I could. As a reader, however, I can respect a writer’s choice to stretch the bounds of lawful process. What matters more to me as a reader is whether a book accurately depicts the culture of lawyering.

These five novels portray lawyers who run the legal gamut, from the most elite elechons of the bar to the barely licensed. All of them capture the quotidian details of the lives of lawyers, and all of them, most importantly, are terrific reads.

Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent. While too many courtroom thrillers substitute legal jargon and evidentiary spats for character and plot development, Turow showed us that the twists and turns of a criminal trial could make for gritty drama.

John Grisham’s The Firm. The plot required suspension of disbelief, but that initial depiction of the allure of elite law firm life to a poor kid like Mitch McDeere is as realistic as it comes.

Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Through cynical, money-motivated Mickey Haller, Connelly shows us the daily work of a trial lawyer, all the way down to his choice of office supplies.

Linda Fairstein’s Alex Cooper series. With Cooper and detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, Fairstein captures the real-world rhythms between cops and prosecutors.

Dylan Schaffer’s Misdemeanor Man. Gordon Seegarman is a complete and total slacker who handles only petty misdemeanors, pleads out as many cases as possible, and reserves what little ambition he has for his Barry Manilow cover band. He’s also a complete and total delight.

The Susan Boyle Phenomenon

If you surf the net enough to find yourself on this blog, then you’re no doubt one of the sixty million people who have viewed Susan Boyle on youtube, singing for Britain’s Got Talent. Even Simon Cowell looked a bit weepy once she showed off her chops.

Now, before anyone accuses me of being mean for what follows, let me state clearly at the outset that the woman can sing. Not just sing, but sayng. Like, call the contractor for a new roof, because she just blew the old one off. But….

A lot of people are great singers. Even a voice from the heavens doesn’t explain why people watch Boyle’s performance over and over again, crying every single time. Some have invoked her age, finding a fairytale quality in the idea of a “nearly 48” year old becoming an overnight celebrity.

But the last time I checked, nearly 48 wasn’t so old. Ask Meg Ryan, Heather Locklear, Demi Moore, Sheryl Crow, Simon’s buddy Paula Abdul, and Ann Coulter. They’re all roughly the same age as Susan Boyle, and I don’t think we’d be shocked if one of them sang like an angel (okay, maybe Ann Coulter, but that’s another story…). So why precisely did one of the judges announce, “Without a doubt that was the biggest surprise I’ve had in three years of this show”?

Because Susan Boyle isn’t just any late-fortyish woman with a beautiful voice. As the same judge noted, she was a woman whose very presence on the audition stage had “everyone against” her and “laughing at” her. Was that because she described herself as “currently employed but still looking”? As living alone “with a cat called Pebbles”? As “never been kissed”? Or was it because, with those caterpillar eyebrows, porcupine hair, triple chins, and a tree trunk body, she doesn’t look the way we expect even a late-fortyish woman with talent to look? Did the audience that laughed at her even need to hear about her reclusive home life, or did it really take just one glance?

After initially sharing in the viral verklemptage, I now find myself with mixed feelings about our joint response to the talented Susan Boyle. When the judges declare that she’s “mind blowing” and the “most extraordinary shock we’ve ever had,” they can’t really be talking only about her voice. And when we watch that youtube moment over and over again, are we celebrating her talent, or are we simply applauding ourselves for seeing past a frumpy veneer that, without the voice, is apparently laughable?

What Recession

One of my worst forms of online procrastination is cruising real estate listings. How many times would I have to sell my soul to live here? I love that the price was just reduced by four million dollars. Times really are tough out there.

I’m printing out a copy. I can’t own it, but one of my characters might. And, ha! Now my surfing counts as research.

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Hofstra has what must be the latest spring break in the country, and we are spending it in Phoenix. We golfed on Days 1 and 2, but yesterday drove north to see Montezuma Castle, Sedona, and Slide Rock State Park. The “castle” was amazing, built by the Sinagua people around 1400.

I read Harlan Coben‘s new one, Long Lost, on the plane. Trademark Coben humor and mind-bending plots. Darker than most of his books. A great read, as always. Next up: Laura Lippman’s Life Sentences, then Beat the Reaper.

Law Professors Who Write

On Saturday, my crime fiction life collided with my academic career at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities. I organized a panel of law professors who have also published crime novels. Unfortunately, Kermit Roosevelt was unable to make it because of an injury, but Mimi Wesson, Lori Andrews, and I had a great time, first at lunch together and then on our panel.

Mimi (U of Colorado) talked about her current work in progress, a novel inspired by the famous case of Mutual Life Insurance Co. v. Hillmon. Among lawyers, the case is known for creating the “state of mind” exception to the evidentiary bar against hearsay. However, Mimi has been quite busy exploring the facts underlying the case, a story of murder, fraud, and mistaken identities. She even went so far as to exhume the body at the center of the case! The book sounds fascinating, so I want her to finish it quickly so I can read it soon.

I was utterly rivited by Lori Andrews’ (Chicago-Kent) discussion of the relationship between her Alexandra Blake series and her expertise in genetics and the law. Lori wrote ten non-fiction books on biogenetics prior to her first novel and was such an established name in her field that the White House called her for a legal opinion about human cloning after scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep.

I also admire the way that both Lori and Mimi have seamlessly and unapologetically integrated their lives as academics and novelists. I tend to bifurcate them, finding myself reluctant, for example, to talk about my fiction with academic colleagues. This was the first time I’d spoken about my books to an academic audience, but, thanks to the people who showed up, and to my admiration for both Lori and Mimi, it hopefully will not be the last.