A novel look at legal fiction

Courtroom dramas have traditionally been dominated by white men. Now ethnic-minority lawyers are bringing their view to the genre
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The Independent Online

What do you get if you cross John Grisham with Amy Tan and add a hint of Robin Cook (the author, not the Foreign Secretary)? Answer: a legal thriller with a biotechnology theme.

That could have been the pitch for Mindgame, published this month and written by the Malaysian-Chinese lawyer Yang-Mai Ooi whose first book, The Flame Tree, has been outselling Ken Follett in Malaysia.

But she is a rarity. Think of a fictional lawyer, and who comes to mind - the Old Bailey's Rumpole, Tom Cruise in John Grisham's The Firm, or Harrison Ford in Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent? Legal fiction tends to reflect what the legal profession is made up of - white, middle-class men.

There are a few exceptions, such as Frances Fyfield's prosecutor Helen West, and even non-lawyers like the arch Aga-saga writer Joanna Trollope have decided that lawyers have interesting lives - her most recent book, Marrying the Mistress, has a judge, barrister, and solicitor as some of its main characters.

And restaurateur Prue Leith recently dipped her pen into fiction in Leaving Patrick, which features a shipping lawyer who leaves her eponymous husband, a restaurateur. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we don't learn much about the world of shipping law; but we do pick up a lot of fascinating information about the restaurant business.

That seems to confirm the advice for all would-be writers, to write about what you know. Ms Ooi's books have both featured a Malaysian female lawyer who has spent time in the East and West, but feels an outsider in both; and who has got involved in relationships with Westerners that are frowned on by the more conservative Far East.

She says: "Where is the young, thrusting Chinese woman lawyer in fiction? My story has been written to a certain extent by Amy Tan and others, but those are based on women, the family and their struggles. I don't necessarily want to write about three generations of a family, but about a young, successful, professional woman in the modern world."

Is this a case of a female ethnic-minority lawyer escaping the male, white domination of the profession through the publication of fiction? She says: "In one sense, I did escape for a while to write these two books." But she is now back working part-time as a lawyer at her old London law firm, Trowers & Hamlins, and is also working on other books.

A trawl through the books in London's specialist crime bookshop Crime in Store unearths only one other escapee in the UK. Black barrister Nicola Williams combines practice with writing and has written one book with a black woman barrister as her central character, Without Prejudice, and is working on her second, Trial and Error.

She says: "Obviously, if you have had an awful day in court, you can fictionalise it and make it better. But generally, you have to think about what will sell. I wanted to write about a black woman lawyer because I can use the law to examine a range of issues, and I hope that would appeal to women, black people, people who like reading legal fiction and other lawyers."

Ms Ooi also has her eye on the wider market; her passion is writing about people, not just lawyers. She says: "The law in itself is not always that exciting in terms of stories. And it would be a challenge to write about a male protagonist."

In fact, her own background could easily form the pitch for a blockbuster family saga. Her great-great grandfather was stolen as a child from his village in China by raiders and subsequently lived with them until he escaped to the coast and made it onto a junk bound for Malaysia. He worked in a plantation there to pay off the price of his passage to freedom. Eventually, his hard work bought him a cart and the chance to marry.

His son had an even more eventful life, and broadened his own family with a number of wives, and a mistress. The elder son of that family, a doctor, became responsible for those wives and the numerous children when his father bowed out. Having made sure that all the children were educated, he went on to become Minister for Commerce and Industry in Malaysia - he was Ms Ooi's mother's father.

As for how to broaden the appeal of future books nearer to home, a glance at the bestseller list suggests that you should write in the form of a diary and have your lawyer moonlight as a gardener and interior decorator, perhaps with a schoolboy wizard as a client.


'Mindgame' by Yang-Mai Ooi is published by Hodder & Stoughton. 'Without Prejudice' by Nicola Williams is published by Headline