Law books: Lawyers in literature leave lasting appeal

By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

-- Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade in William Shakespeare's Henry VI

Although this line is most often used to disparage lawyers, Shakespeare was actually an admirer of the trade and the two shady villains conversing in the scene are agreeing that attorneys are the key to order and civilization and must be eliminated.

Not every writer was such a fan of the profession.

A century later, novelist Henry Fielding, himself a lawyer, penned this ditty near the end of his little-known comedy "Don Quixote in England," which appeared in 1734:

"Lawyers are for Bedlam fit,

Or they never

Could endeavor

Half the rogueries to commit

Which we're so mad to let 'em."

But it was yet another century passed before books with the law as a central thread really hit their stride.

Some consider 19th century author Wilkie Collins the father of the mystery thriller. His 1859 work "The Woman in White" involved puzzles, secrets, insanity and crimes like forgery, fraud and theft, much like a modern mystery, although at the time it was considered to be part of a genre called "sensation novels."

Although he never practiced, English author Collins was trained as a lawyer and had passed the bar. In the book's introduction, he said: "The story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness."

The book is probably the first instance in literature of a story told from the viewpoint of four different narrators. It also deals with some surprisingly modern issues, like women's rights.

Because Collins and Charles Dickens were good friends, the book appeared in a magazine Dickens had created called "All the Year Round." Serials were the rage then and the first installment of "The Woman in White" follows immediately the conclusion of Dickens' "Tale of Two Cities" -- with an attorney as a main character -- in the same issue.

"The Woman in White" has been in print continuously since then, has been adapted for the stage and spawned four film versions.

Mark Twain created the character of Pudd'nhead Wilson, an eccentric young attorney, in 1894. Not one of Twain's best efforts, it did involve a mystery and introduced the novel notion of identifying individuals by their fingerprints.

In the early 1900s, author Arthur Train was the creator of the attorney Mr. Ephraim Tutt, sort of a proto-Perry Mason who, in the words of the author, "fights fire with fire, meets guile with guile, and rights the legal wrong." Train was an attorney himself and wrote dozens of the books, making Mr. Tutt the best known lawyer in America at the time.

Among the hugely-successful works dealing with the law in the middle of the 20th century, "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee and "Anatomy of a Murder" by Robert Traver stand out.

But the king of them all is still Perry Mason.

Author Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason and author of the books until his death - yes, characters often outlive writers -- was admitted to the bar in California in 1911. He tended to represent underdog (and underpaying) clients and sold tires as a sideline to make ends meet. Gardner eventually decided that writing might be a better second job and he reputedly wrote 4,000 words a night, although any writer will tell you, that's a lot of literary lifting.

Gardner wrote his first Mason novel, "The Case of the Velvet Claws," in 1933 and his publisher liked it so much that he suggested a series.

What followed were 81 Mason mysteries translated into 30 languages and eventually selling hundreds of millions -- that's hundreds of millions -- of copies in the U.S. alone.

And we're not even to the films and long-running television show.

It's a safe bet that Americans who would draw a blank on such real-life legal legends as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thurgood Marshall or even Clarence Darrow, know who Perry Mason is.

Local used bookseller John King says that Perry Mason continues to be popular and that the fans aren't always too picky which book they get.

"There's always someone who's a voracious reader and comes in and buys a bushel basket of these books," he says.

Perhaps some buyers are attracted to the racy covers the Mason mysteries usually sported.

"A lot of the lurid covers are still lurid even by today's standards. They're still pretty raunchy," King says.

But if you're looking for barristers in the Mason aisle at John King Books in downtown Detroit, you'll be disappointed.

"It's almost an aversion," King says. "I don't know too many attorneys who read Perry Mason." Move over to the history section and you're more likely to trip over a lawyer.

"A good number of attorneys collect books on the history of law, but not the fictional side of it," King says.

And anyone who suspects that Gardner's belief in the underdog was feigned, in 1948 he was one of the founders of what has been called the world's first "innocence project." The "Court of Last Resort" was an organization of attorneys, experts and investigators who sought to help the wrongly convicted.

After Mason's heyday, the genre seemed to go to sleep for a decade or two. Then it began to build again and today is arguably as popular as it ever was. Now, John Grisham, Scott Turow, David Baldacci and others keep the literary courtrooms full of interesting characters.

Marlyn Robinson, reference librarian at University of Texas at Austin and an acknowledged expert on the genre, has her own theory about the resurgence of lawyer literature:

"It wasn't until the 1970s, and especially the '80s, that lawyers once again began to turn away from their practices to write fiction, bringing a new edge of realism and authority to mysteries engaging the law," Robinson wrote. "The boom in legal business up to the late '80s was accompanied by a massive burnout. Intense pressure for billing hours, competition for those hours, and a general feeling that law was not nearly so exciting as they had thought during law school caused a large number of lawyers to rethink their careers. The economic bust of the late '80s saw many lawyers casting about for alternative careers. Then in 1987, Scott Turow's success with 'Presumed Innocent' exploded the legal thriller market. The sheer number of lawyer/authors dictates that the major characteristic of the genre in this decade is enormous diversity in writing styles, themes and series characters."

While the legal profession can sometimes be hard on its practitioners, many grateful readers should be forgiven for saying, "Thank goodness for burnout."

Published: Thu, Nov 28, 2013

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