RARA-AVIS: Hard-boiled Legal Thrillers

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 13 Mar 2008

Legal thrillers?

mrt wrote:

> Yes, and it has even spawned a whole subgenre that sells exceedingly
> well: legal thrillers.

So, how about hard-boiled legal thrillers?

I guess it depends on how you define (here we go again) the term
"legal thrillers."

Merely having a lawyer as the lead character, to me, isn't enough. The law and legal arguments should play an integral part as well. (So Craig Rice's romping, stomping Malone stories are more hard-boiled, acid-tinged screwball binges than legal thrillers, at least in my book).

For example, John Grisham's books, or at least many of them, really don't qualify. Sure, his central characters are usually lawyers, but is that enough? Not every book that focusses on a cop is a police procedural, after all.

Grisham's basic format, from those I've read, is like this:

Lawyer stumbles over something shady, which leads to the discovery of a huge conspiracy. Then he goes on the run with the bad guys chasing him. Mayhem and numerous cliff hangers and narrow escapes ensue until he figures out how to see justice done. What Indiana Jones is to archaeology or James Bond is to espionage Grisham is to legal thrillers.

The denser, more complex work of Scott Turow, on the other hand, tends to obsess more about the law (and justice) itself, and its finer machinations (and abominations). Often hard-boiled in tone, if not style.

In between are everyone from Erle Stanley Gardner (in the early books, Perry Mason is about as shady and two-fisted a shyster as you'd want on your side) to William Lasher's mess-in-the-making Victor Carl.

I've enjoyed several books tagged as "legal thrillers" over the years, but I'm not sure they'd all fit my definition of either a legal thriller or hard-boiled. That need to be about the law -- and all the nit-picky dancing on the head of assorted legal pins -- almost seems to preclude their also being hard-boiled.

Gardner's A.A. Fair books come closest, maybe -- although the action is as old-fashioned pulpy and often as hard-boiled as you'd like, Donald Lam's scams are often based on sound, if obscure, legal theory
(Gardner was a lawyer).

Any other suggestions for hard-boiled (or noir, I guess) legal thrillers? Does such a cat really exist?

Kevin Burton Smith The Thrilling Detective Web Site 10 Years of P.I. Thrills... and counting...

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