Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Tell No Lies and Presumed Innocent

I’ve been reading a debut novel by an American lawyer, Julie Compton, called Tell No Lies. It’s strange that so many attorneys write crime novels, whereas in the UK there are only a handful of lawyer-novelists. Why is it? I’ve never understood. I do, though, know a number of English solicitors who tell me that they mean to write a book ‘when they have a bit more time’. Can it really be true that our colleagues in the States are, in comparison, under-worked? Doesn’t seem likely, somehow.

Certainly, the protagonist in Tell No Lies is kept fully occupied. Jack Hilliard is a trial lawyer with an apparently happy all-American family life who runs for D.A. at the same time as embarking on a dangerous liaison with a sexy attorney called Jenny Dodson. Poor old Jack finds it all too easy to compromise his principles, not least in relation to his stance on the death penalty. When Jenny is accused of murder, he finds himself in the embarrassing position of being aware that she has an alibi – it seems she was frolicking with him at the time the victim was shot to death.

As ever with an American novel about a murder trial, the publishers are making comparisons with Scott Turow. However, it’s better to judge Julie Compton’s book on its own merits. Turow is, as far as I’m concerned, in a different league from all other American lawyer-novelists, or at least all those I’ve read. Presumed Innocent is a genuine masterpiece – one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve ever come across. It is one of the few books that literally kept me up half the night, so keen was I to find out what was going to happen. Nothing by John Grisham (and I’ve enjoyed a number of his books, especially the first half of The Firm and The Rainmaker) comes close. I’ve not read everything Turow has written, but it must be open to doubt whether he can ever surpass that brilliant first novel. It combines a great plot with superb characterisation, a wholly credible portrayal of the legal system, and very good writing. What more could anyone ask?


Anonymous said...

I love legal thrillers, so will have to give this a go.
Agreed on Presumed Innocent, it was fantastic. I've read a few of his subsequent books but enjoyed each one slightly less than the one before so have not read the most recent two (or three).

One of my favourites of this genre is Philip Margolian, who has been writing legal thrillers for years. He's another ex-lawyer.

Claire M. Johnson said...

I had a chance to talk with Ridley Pearson at some conference and he's pals with Scott Turow. We began comparing notes on the writing process and he told me that Scott Turow starts with, say, Chapter 13, then writes Chapter 4, then writes Chapter 20, sort of hop-scotching around the entire book until he's completed ALL the chapters. I find that completely mind-boggling! But, works for him. Obviously!

Martin Edwards said...

My mind boggles too, Claire! I can't believe he prepares his legal cases that way!