Declaration of law

Mark Lawson talks to Richard North Patterson about his new legal thriller

There are three ways to achieve to fame and money within the American legal system. The first is to be a celebrity defendant; the great example is OJ Simpson, who has found new, and international, renown after being charged with two murders. The s econd method is to become a celebrity defence counsel; Johnny Cochrane Jr and Robert Shapiro, Simpson's lead defence attorneys, are now as celebrated in LA society as their client. The third way is to write legal thrillers; John Grisham became the world'

s fastest-selling writer after scratching out books instead of case notes on his legal pads.

Of these three options, the third is the most attractive. As a legal thriller writer you get the cash (the film rights to Grisham's new novel are being auctioned with a reserve price of £3.8 million), and you can draw on your detailed knowledge of the law while encompassing in your plots some of the moral disapproval of attorneys.

It was once said that there were more lawyers in America than criminals. Now, there are more legal thriller writers than either. Star defence lawyer Allan Dershowitz (Claus Von Bulow, Mike Tyson) publishes his first courtroom procedural, The Advocate's Devil, this month. The book-trade is being primed to hype a new thriller by George Dawes called The Juror, with the new Grisham, The Rainmaker, due in May. And, this week, Richard North Patterson, whose 1993 Degree Of Guilt was part of the first wave of legal bestsellers, publishes a sequel, Eyes Of A Child (Hutchinson, £9.99).

Meeting North Patterson in a London restaurant, you can guess that he was once a lawyer - a partner in the San Francisco firm of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen - from the silk handkerchief crisply triangled in the top pocket of his creaseless blazer; a dress code uncommon in novelists, even American ones.

Being in the presence of an American lawyer was an inevitable encouragement to talk about the OJ Simpson case. Patterson launches in happily. "The smart money among people I know who do these things for a living and some inside knowledge of the facts is that we're going to get a couple of hung juries - neither guilty nor not guilty - at which point the prosecution will collapse from exhaustion. The interesting thing is that the Simpson case is not probably in itself a very complex one. What you have is a defendant with the financial resources to make it complex - by sheer weight of lawyers and expert testimony and so on."

The current events in Los Angeles have a particular relevance to North Patterson's work. Where Grisham deals with small-time lawyers becoming involved in larger cases, North Patterson's territory is the area of American law where justice brushes up against celebrity and politics. In Degree Of Guilt, a star TV reporter was charged with the murder of a famous novelist in a trial which raised ghosts from political scandals and assassinations of the Seventies. Thirty years of political and cultural history were combined in one thriller plot; it was as if Barbara Walters had been arraigned for the murder of Norman Mailer, with investigation uncovering the involvement of the Kennedys and Marilyn Monroe in an earlier version of Watergate. In Eyes Of A Child, the defence counsel from the earlier case, Chris Paget is himself on trial for the murder of his girlfriend's estranged husband.

The great attraction of North Patterson's books is that they take the reader inside the construction of a bravura murder defence; in both Degree Of Guilt and Eyes Of A Child, the evidence is stacked heavily against the accused. A long section in the new novel deals with the mechanics of jury selection, a process which took four months in the Simpson case.

"I see the lawyers coming on the television", says North Patterson, "and saying `all we want is an objective jury'. Well, that's bullshit. What you're attempting to do now, with a great deal of art and science, is to find a jury which, by various demographic characteristics, is most inclined to accept your view of events."

North Patterson's novels are very good on the amoral talents of defence attorneys. In Eyes Of A Child, there is a moment when a prosecution eye-witness appears to have won the case for the state, until defence counsel destroys her with a series of questions which at first appear to be leading nowhere. That is, at one level, Perry Mason stuff, with the crucial exception that, in the modern legal thriller - and, particularly, North Patterson's - dazzling advocacy is being employed to save figures of extremely uncertain innocence.

Does Patterson think it easy to shut off the side of the mind that asks whether someone is guilty? "You have to shut it off. It's a different kind of morality; the morality of the system. And the rationale of the system is that persuasive evidence must be mounted on both sides. And so you can't be worrying about the guilt of your client. The other rationale - which defence lawyers use a lot, particularly when defending someone odious - is that they're keeping the system honest. They're preventing the cops from beating a confession out of someone, for example. But the morality system of defence lawyers is contrary to the common morality, and that is why people have such an appalled fascination with lawyers."

The high spot of North Patterson's own legal career came early on; he was involved, along with Hillary Clinton and hundreds of other young lawyers. on the Watergate case, investigating the financial affairs of William Casey, a Nixon official. Casey avoided prosecution and went on to become Director of the CIA. North Patterson's first novel, The Lasko Tangent (1979), in which Chris Paget made his first appearance, centered on a Watergate-like case of government criminality.

He acknowledges that his books - with their obsession with corruption, relative truth, politics and the media - are specifically post-Watergate thrillers. "Absolutely. Watergate is the defining event in American politics and American journalism and, to some extent, in how Americans think about authority. It was a really transforming event."

North Patterson's own career after The Lasko Tangent was a stuttery affair - for eight years in the Eighties, he wrote nothing at all - until the transforming event of receiving a million dollars from Knopf for Degree Of Guilt. He retired from his law firm and denies either that Paget is a fantasy of the kind of superstar attorney he might have been himself or that he has any desire to practise law again.

I asked him what he'd do if OJ Simpson phoned and said he'd read the books and would like to be defended by North Patterson at his trial. "I'd say, `Thanks OJ, but I know this other lawyer down the road.' You see, there are more lawyers in America these days dreaming of writing a bestselling thriller than of getting some high-profile case on Court TV."

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