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."

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?