There are many kinds of thrillers out there, but none are quite like legal thrillers. Legal thrillers take readers into the courtroom where articulate, passionate lawyers battle it out to catch the bad guy and make sure that justice is served. James Grippando, author of Most Dangerous Place out earlier this spring, knows this better than most. His legal thrillers combine suspense and courtroom drama in an immensely satisfying way. Here, he shares his top five legal thrillers of all time.
No one agrees on the origin of the thriller, much less the subgenre of “legal” thriller. Two days after selling my first novel, The Pardon, I received a 35-page, single-spaced letter from my editor. Part I laid out the “six essential elements of a legal thriller.” To my surprise, they weren’t really any different from the essential elements of great suspense, which probably accounts for my broad definition of the genre. Here are my top five, though some of these might leave you scratching your head and saying, “That’s not a legal thriller.” To which I say, “Oh, yes, it is.”
This is a novel based on the mutiny against Lieutenant William Bligh, commanding officer of the Bounty in 1789. I consider it the original legal thriller. Re-read the last half of the book that deals with the trial and execution of mutineers, and you’ll see what I mean.
Okay, it’s technically a play, but it reads like a book. It’s the story of Sir Thomas More, who was tried for treason and beheaded after he refused on principle to sign an oath approving the marriage of King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn. I still have that book. It became especially meaningful to me in the early years of my legal career, when I was young and naïve and appalled to discover how many witnesses lied under oath. People complain that lawyers are always trying to trip them up with their clever questions, but in my experience witnesses too often had to be tricked into telling the truth. In my most cynical moments as a trial lawyer, I’d go back to Sir Thomas More and the sanctity of an oath.
A prosecutor cheats on his wife and then is accused of killing his mistress. The mistress was a fellow prosecutor, and in addition to sleeping with the novel’s “hero,” she had a string of extramarital affairs with everyone from the State Attorney (her boss) to her division judge. The State Attorney isn’t sure who killed her, but he’s facing re-election and presses a murder trial against his own chief prosecutor for political purposes. Our hero (who is also the narrator) lies to his lawyer and to the reader throughout the trial. Is there an ethical lawyer in the house? You gotta love this mess. And the courtroom scenes are spot on.
Many consider it the greatest legal thriller/courtroom drama of all time (with strong dissent from fans of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution). This iconic thriller involves a suspenseful murder trial that could go either way. I find it especially interesting because the story was inspired by an actual case handled by the author in his other life as a criminal defense lawyer. I wonder if that was why John Voelker wrote under the pseudonym Robert Traver.
James Grippando is a New York Times bestselling author of suspense. Most Dangerous Place (HarperCollins, Feb. 2017) is his twenty-fifth novel, the thirteenth in his acclaimed series featuring Miami criminal defense attorney Jack Swyteck. He is also the author of The Penny Jumper, a novella, just released in October. His books are enjoyed worldwide in twenty-eight languages. James was a trial lawyer for twelve years before the publication of his first novel in 1994 (The Pardon). He is now Counsel at Boies Schiller & Flexner LLP. He lives in south Florida with his wife, three children, two cats and a golden retriever named Max who has no idea he’s a dog.