Tag Archives: legal thriller

You’ll see it coming with Grisham’s Sycamore Row

SycamoreRow1Legal thrillers!  I’m on a little roll here, first with Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller) and now John Grisham’s Sycamore Row (Jake Brigance).  It’s an embarrassment of riches.

First, let’s all agree that John Grisham is the grand poobah of the courtroom drama.   There may have been legal thrillers before Grisham, but he’s made the genre what it is today with his series of books featuring intricate, compelling plots and human characters.   Click here to see his works, many of which have been made into highly successful movies.  We can also agree that John Grisham is a solid writer.  Unlike some famous authors, his books continue to be very well-crafted and well-edited.

So you know Sycamore Row’s going to be worth reading.  And it is.  It’s been a lot of years since Jake Brigance first came to our attention in A Time to Kill, but in Clanton, MS, it’s still 1988.   Following the triumph of the Carl Lee Hailey case, Jake’s struggling to pay the bills and living with his wife and daughter in a rental house (his own home was firebombed by white supremacists during the Hailey trial).   The case led to one good thing, though – out of all the lawyers in Ford County, rich Seth Hubbard picked Jake as the lawyer to handle the distribution of his extensive estate.  Jake learns of this only after Seth hangs himself from a tree outside of town.   His hand-written will leaves 90% of his $20 million estate to his black housekeeper/caregiver, 5% to his brother, and 5% to charity, disinheriting his children.  Seth’s chosen Jake because of his defense of Carl Lee Hailey.  So, while it’s not a murder trial, there’s definitely a courtroom battle looming.

Jake’s challenge is to defend the will and speak for Seth.  That’s pretty hard – judge and jury alike will be quick to assume some undue influence given the balance of racial distrust and deference to blood ties.  Any man who leaves his fortune to his housekeeper and cuts off his blood kin must be either crazy or sleeping with the woman in question, or both.   So Jake has to not only debunk the naysayers, but deliver a compelling motive.

No surprise, he pulls it off.  I think the typical reader will have strong suspicions about what’s coming pretty early in the book, but Grisham is skillful in revealing it, and the final revelation will generate a shiver or two.   And, ever realistic, Grisham addresses the likely outcome of any successful trial of this type: the threat of endless appeals necessitating a settlement agreement.  No clucking from the attorneys who read Sycamore Row.

Of course, having brought up the Michael Connelly book, I have to do a brief comparison.  Here’s what they have in common:

  1. Courtroom drama
  2. Great writing
  3. Matthew McConaughey


a time to kill

Yes,  McConaughey plays both Mickey Haller and Jake Brigance in the films The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and A Time to Kill (1996).   I had him in my head while reading both books, which is no hardship.  I’d buy a ticket to any sequels he makes in either series!  

When it comes to the novels, I’d give Grisham the edge for writing style, Connelly for plotting.  Both books are on the “must read” list.

Defending Jacob – advance review

Once again, my Murder and Mayhem in Muskego overnighter has yielded big returns.  I got an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of Willam Landay’s Defending Jacob.  And it was such a compelling read it was all I could do to stop reading for those necessary activities of daily living, such as showering, working, and sleeping.

Assistant DA Andy Barber’s living a nice life in a Boston suburb with the support of the love of his life and Laurie and his 14-year-old son, Jacob.  Their quiet community is rocked by the murder of one of Jacob’s classmates, Ben Rifkin – a popular boy, but a bossy and perhaps even bullying one.  Given the title of the book, it should come as no surprise that Jacob Barber is charged with the crime and the plot centers on the Jacob’s trial.

The shock – and what keeps you reading late into the night – is the backstory and the rippling repercussions.  No spoilers from me, but let’s just say that Andy’s been working hard to overcome a family secret.  Plus, there’s something more going on… Landry’s interweaving another trial with the same prosecutor, but Andy’s a witness, and it’s not Jacob in the docks.  How is this all going to come together?

It does.  Masterfully.  Defending Jacob will be available on January 31, but feel free to pre-order!

Author William Landay has credibility – he’s Boston College Law School grad and former assistant district attorney.  He has two previous books both award-winers:  Mission Flats and The Strangler.  They’re on my bedside table.

Hello, David Ellis.

NLU’s Writer’s Week came to its conclusion with a half-day workshop on Saturday, July 16th featuring mystery/legal thriller writer David Ellis. He’s reading this right now, I know, because he subscribes to Google Alerts. Quick aside to David – great workshop! Thanks for sharing.

I first made David Ellis’ acquaintance over lunch at the mystery confab Love is Murder – he was earlier in his career, but I believe his debut novel (Line of Vision) had already won the MWA Edgar.  He was a great conversationalist then, and he certainly still knows how to tell a great story.

Since Line of Vision, Ellis has written several stand-alones:  Life SentenceJury of OneIn the Company of Liars, and Eye of the Beholder.  The most recent book is The Hidden Man, the first in his series about attorney and grieving family man Jason Kolarich, soon to be followed by Breach of Trust, the second Kolarich novel.

Here’s some advice on writing a mystery, courtesy of David Ellis:

  1. You can learn to write by writing.  Read really good stuff and you’ll be inspired to write really good stuff.
  2. It’s true you should write what you know.  And if you don’t know it, you better learn it before you write about it.
  3. Humor is tricky but can be rewarding.
  4. Go with what feels right.  The first agent who called him with an offer for Line of Vision had low expectations.  He just couldn’t bring himself to sign the contract… and a good thing, too.  The next agent had big dreams… and sold the book to Penguin/Putnam.`
  5. One key decision:  Point of view.  First person?  Third person?  Second person?  (Tricky, but it can be done!)  The choice you make sets the stage for everything else.  It’s a big decision to have more than one POV in a book.
  6. Character development makes a more satisfying story.  One dimensional characters just march through the plot.
  7. Trust the reader’s imagination.  You don’t have to write every detail – just that one evocative touch that makes the scene come alive.  And that detail can be visual, or it can be a sound, a smell…
  8. Know your protagonist very well.  Ideally, the bad guy, too.  And all major characters.   Write out their backstory, their likes, their dislikes, their physical features, their strengths, their weaknesses.  This’ll keep you on track as you write the book.
  9. Can you write a book about a protagonist that the reader doesn’t like?  Yes, but you might not sell too many books.
  10. At the end of your novel, you want the reader to be surprised but not irritated at the ending.  Strive for what M. Night Shyamalan pulled off with The Sixth Sense.  He didn’t cheat – all the clues that Bruce Willis is dead were right there in the film – but there was an alternative explanation.  The audience bought the misdirection.  Need more examples?  Unbreakable.  The Usual Suspects.
  11. Make the stakes personal and raise the stakes as the book goes on.
  12. Grab the reader.  The first chapter should be the best chapter, first paragraph should be the best paragraph, first line should be the best line.  No backstory.  No lengthy descriptions.

In addition to his own work, Ellis has joined the ranks of James Patterson co-authors.  I was a little disappointed to hear this – I’m not a James Patterson fan and his factory approach to publishing may churn out a consistent product, but it’s not one I buy (or even read for free).   On the other hand, after hearing David Ellis describe what he has learned from Patterson, I can see what the opportunity would be appealing.  And nothing ventured, nothing gained!  

BTW, I did hit the library on Sunday the 17th, and hit the jackpot since all the David Ellis books published to date were right there on the shelf.  I’ve already finished the Jason Kolarich debut The Hidden Man – a great read!  I’m now going back to the start and re-reading Line of Vision.  You, of course, should get to the bookstore and buy retail.








NLU Writers Week: investigative reporter John Conroy

Last Saturday, I spent half the day with Tim Kazurinsky learning about comedy (read more here) and the other half with John Conroy.  John’s an award-winning investigative reporter, winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism, author of Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture and playwright “My Kind of Town,” based on his coverage of the Chicago Police torture scandals.  (The play’s featured in the 2011-12 season of the TimeLine theater.)

Obviously, John’s a multi-talented writer and I went primarily to get insight into how he conducts investigations.  After all, my protagonist is a nosy–but uncredentialed-investigator, so I thought I’d get some tips that would be useful. He also has written extensively about the Chicago PD, so I thought that would be helpful, also, for my Det. Kathy Martinez series.  And I was partially correct – I got the insights I expected, and even more.

First, I had to put myself out there.  Workshop attendees were strongly encouraged to submit a page of two of nonfiction for critique purposes.  I don’t do a lot of nonfiction, unless you count the two articles I co-wrote for the Journal of the American Dental Association about member research.  Plus about 500,000 examples of various forms of copywriting in the form of direct mail, advertising, newsletters, etc.  So I resurrected a 2,200-word memoir I wrote in first person after the heartbreaking (to me) death of my cat.  I’d tried to “fictionalize” it by rewriting it in third person.  But for John Conroy’s workshop, I submitted it in first.

Not to keep you in suspense, he liked it.  Only positive comments.  I glowed.  (You can read it here:  A Cat-Shaped Hole.)  There were about 15 people in the workshop, so there were 14 other submissions – and John was fair, had helpful comments, and was encouraging about the good stuff.

We spent the other half of the session taking a look at a real-life incident from 2003, when an on-duty transit cop shot an unarmed man at the Red Line CTA station at 95th St.  It was like Coach Peeler’s enriched history class in high school, where we tried to figure out what happened during a particular time in history by reading contemporary news reports and other documents:  a kind of “Where’s Waldo” for facts.

John shared a series of media reports relating the facts as reported early on – scanty, unrevealing, and in general, pretty wrong.   We then broke into small groups to review police reports, witness reports, and other evidence.  Not until a full 14 months after the shooting, when the Chicago PD Office of Professional Standards completed its investigation, was it revealed that all the charges against both the involved officer and his partner were sustained, including charges that both officers had lied every step of the way.

The kicker? The killing was captured on film by CTA security cameras.  You can read about the case – and see the video – here.

Instructive for me:  The reports, the language used, the way the cops acted, how police investigating the shooting rushed to closure, higher-ups believing every word of the officer – despite the fact that the video showed him rushing into view, gun already drawn, snatching up one person in one hand and extending his gun to shoot an unarmed innocent in the neck.

I would have liked more information about how an investigative reporter goes about gathering information: getting the scoop about how stories come to his attention, who his sources are, the mechanics of finding uncovering the bits and pieces of the truth until it all comes out would have been very informative.

All in all, a fun and instructive Saturday.  There are two more sessions this Saturday (July 16), conveniently at National Louis University’s downtown campus at 122 South Michigan Ave.  In the morning, I’ll be missing Dawn Turner Trice‘s workshop on Writing Your Truth (she writes for the Chicago Tribune and I’ve read her columns many a time, but I’ll be communing with dentists that morning), but the afternoon will be notable for a Writing to Create Mystery with David Ellis, the attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and author of many a fine legal thriller (he won an Edgar for his debut, Line of Vision).  My sweet spot!  You can join me there – registration is ongoing.  More info here.