Turning swords into legal paperweights

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The Independent Online
ON HOLIDAY for the past two weeks, I let down my literary guard and took thrillers to the pool; mainly current American bestsellers. And although my first intention was escapism, there was no getting away from the fact that the books fell into an intriguing pattern.

I started with The Firm by John Grisham, the new American superseller who, in recent weeks, had three books among the top five paperbacks on the New York Times list and one in the hardback chart. Grisham, a former Louisiana attorney, writes thrillers about lawyers. Next I read Pleading Guilty, the new bestseller by Scott Turow. A partner in the Chicago legal firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Turow writes suspense stories - Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof were his first two books - about the legal profession. Finally, I turned to Degree of Guilt, another current US bestseller. Its author, Richard North Patterson, a partner in the San Francisco legal firm of McCutchen, Doyle, Brown & Enersen, writes murder stories about


Given this evidence, I think that even William Kennedy Smith's defence counsel or the jury in the first Rodney King trial would be hard pushed to deny a pattern of behaviour in recent bestselling fiction. Indeed, the American charts contain so much fiction by and about attorneys that you wonder how long it will be before, instead of a simple cover price, thriller writers start charging readers hourly fees.

One possible explanation for this coincidence of creativity might be the influence (with all the authors being lawyers, I hesitate to use a stronger word) of the late Eighties success of Turow. But even if there were a copycat element in the growth of the genre, this would still not explain the obvious public appetite for such writing. The answer is, I think, that one of the functions of thrillers, beyond their provision of offering an involved and involving plot, is to treat in jaunty form the fears and concerns of a particular period.

The Cold War years spawned the spy novel (John Le Carre, Len Deighton) and nuclear thriller (Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, Gerald Seymour). Without Communism, none of these Western writers could have become so rich. So the fall of the Berlin Wall and decommissioning of missiles seemed to threaten the nomenklatura of the genre with redundancy. In fact, the genre leaders have adapted, diversifying into the international drug trade (Clancy and Le Carre's most recent books) or to the Persian Gulf (the last- but-one Seymour, the newcomer David Mason's Shadow over Babylon, the next Jeffrey Archer).

But it is now also clear, from my holiday reading, that American capitalism has managed to convert the thriller - formerly aimed at Moscow - to peaceful purposes. Grisham, Turow and North Patterson have turned, as it were, swords into legal paperweights. The astonishing popularity of their fictions shows us that nuclear annihilation and Soviet domination have been replaced as American neuroses by litigation overkill.

I can see one possible objection to this thesis: it has been a common piece of European abuse for 30 years that the US is lawsuit crazy, a Jarndycian nation. But the insult has applied to a sort of institutionalised public touchiness, tort as the citizen's first thought.

In that context, however, we had in mind a country in which passengers suffering minor whiplash from a freeway prang would launch multi-million-dollar personal- injury suits; in which waitresses in diners were insured against possible claims resulting from spilt coffee. The more recent American legal culture - from which these thrillers grow - is something more central and tentacular.

There has been an astonishing weight of significant public litigation in the US in recent years. We have seen the rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson; the two Rodney King court cases; and the senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, which turned, after the testimony of Anita Hill, into a symposium on sexual harassment.

Through these well-publicised trials, the US has been thinking aloud about itself, testing its attitudes towards sex and money (Kennedy Smith); race (Rodney King); sex, money and race (Tyson, Thomas-Hill).

We could also include the 'Irangate' hearings, in which the evidence of Colonel Oliver North became an impromptu debate on American patriotism and military ambition. The courtroom has become the moral crucible of the US.

So, just as the spy writers sent back simplified dispatches from an earlier conflict, the writers of legal thrillers provide readers with stories from a contemporary war. North Patterson's Degree of Guilt, for example, clearly owes its popularity to recent sexual litigation. The central lawyer character is defending a female television reporter who has shot an American celebrity because, she claims, he attempted to rape her. Following the twists of this thriller, the reader is faced with their own sexual prejudices.

Strictly, North Patterson should give a percentage of his royalties to Clarence Thomas, for the book's appeal is in its factual shadowing.

It is important to make clear that the lawyers in these novels are not uniformly strong- jawed heroes. It is this that separates these works from the long tradition of Hollywood courtroom dramas, up to the recent A Few Good Men, with Tom Cruise as a hero of the brief.

Like the spies in the best books of the earlier genre, the attorneys in these books occupy an ethically murky world, caught between justice and money. Both Grisham and Turow in their latest books prominently feature lawyers far more crooked than their clients.

Indeed, The Firm - in which a young law recruit discovers the truth about the financial basis of what seems to be America's most lucrative law firm - may be the ultimate expression of general cynicism about the legal


In the same way, another part of the success of these works, I suspect, is that the lawyers are subliminal stand-

ins for modern politicians. They win with words, creating illusions of sagacity, but they obey briefs rather than beliefs. (A majority of recent senior American politicians, including presidents, have been attorneys by profession.)

So, for those seeking tense, but intelligent, beach or villa reading, I enter a plea, without any highbrow guilt, for Grisham's The Firm, North Patterson's Degree Of Guilt and, for visitors to America, Turow's Pleading Guilty (published here in October). My only reservation is that, with Turow and North Patterson continuing to practise law between books, these dark and cynical portraits of the American legal system have the paradoxical effect of putting two American attorneys on double earnings.