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Legal Fiction for the Readers on Your Gift List or Your Holiday Vacation

Posted December 15, 2017

By Jonathan A. Karon

If you’re looking for a good book for someone on your gift list or a good book to bring on a holiday vacation, I’d like to suggest my three favorite authors of legal fiction. Although each of them writes books that are hard to put down, they are quite different from each other and you should be able to find a book from at least one of them that will appeal to any fiction lover.

I’ll start with my absolute favorite, the Rumpole of the Bailey series by John Mortimer. English barrister Horace Rumpole was the creation of playwright John Mortimer, himself a former barrister (Mortimer used to brag he was the only person to try a murder case at the London criminal court, known as the Old Bailey and to have a play he wrote produced in London’s West End). Self-styled “Old Bailey Hack” Rumpole, age 68, quotes Wordsworth, lives on a diet of small cigars and cheap “plonk” from the nearby wine bar and never lets his clients plead guilty. He lives in a “mansion flat” with his wife, known to him only as “she who must be obeyed”. He never has more fun than when he’s trying a case and he never gives up. Because Mortimer was himself a former barrister, the Rumpole stories have realistic trials and are a source of useful advice. For example, “the art of cross examination is not the art of examining crossly.” When I practiced criminal law I actually stole part of Rumpole’s standard closing argument which I’m happy to report worked pretty well. Most of the books consist of short stories, which were adapted from teleplays aired on the BBC (in the U.S. on PBS’ Mystery series) starring the late Leo McKern. A lot of the stories concern the foibles of Rumpoles’ fellow barristers and they all have a healthy dose of humor, mystery and courtroom drama. I just can’t recommend them enough.

On a more serious note, any of the legal thrillers by Scott Turow, a former U.S. attorney and still practicing lawyer, are excellent. The movie Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford, was made from one of his novels. His novels usually take place in fictional Kindle County (which appears to sort of be Chicago) and a lot of the same characters make appearances from book to book. His novels usually include a murder, a mystery, some political corruption and some legal maneuvering. My personal favorite is his novel “Personal Injuries” which involves, surprise, personal injury lawyers (unfortunately not always in a flattering light), but I also highly recommend “Innocent” his sequel to “Presumed Innocent” and his most recent novel “Testimony” which concerns war crimes tribunals. If you have a vacation coming up, a Turow book is always a good read.

Finally, I’d like to suggest the Perry Mason novels by Erle Stanley Gardner. If your only exposure to Perry Mason is the t.v. show starring Raymond Burr, you’ll be in for a surprise if you read the novels. The literary Perry is a bit different. He’s a lot wittier and a much better detective. The novels are much more mysteries than courtroom thrillers but they keep your reading. There is courtroom action, but unlike t.v. (or real life ever) the murderer does not usually confess on the witness stand. The books were out of print but recently the first twelve has been re-issued as attractive paperbacks. I’d suggest starting with the first one “The Case of the Velvet Claws.” A word of caution is in order. The first books were written in the 1930’s and occasionally there are some characterizations that can make modern readers uncomfortable. Gardner was also a lawyer, although I don’t know how much law he practiced. The stories are far less realistic than Turow or Mortimer, but you could do far worse for a day at the beach.

Anyway, those are my personal favorites and if you have a suggested author, feel free to let me know through the Contact page. I’m always looking for a good read.

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