Movies based on books are mostly disappointing but legal thrillers are an exception. 

The literary sub genre called the ‘ Legal Thriller’ probably began to be recognized as such in the late eighties and nineties with the success of Scott Turow’s  ‘ Presumed Innocent’  and John Grisham’s ‘The Firm’ followed by a string of bestsellers by both featuring lawyer heroes and pacy plots highlighted by a climax lighted up by pyrotechnics in the courtroom. Their success inspired  a whole raft of writers including John Lescroart, Steve Martini, Lisa Scottoline , Philip Margolin and Michael Connelly whose works regularly featured on the bestseller lists. 

Legal thrillers, however, have been around for decades before this with the best known proponent probably being the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner whose creation Perry Mason is now synonymous with lawyer heroes in popular fiction. Other than Gardner there have been other books featuring lawyer heroes including Craig Rice’s books featuring John J. Malone and several other seminal novels in the field. A short listing of some of my favourites follows .

Erle Stanley Gardner

Gardner got his start in the pulp magazines and wrote in a variety of genres including mysteries and westerns before he found his niche. The first Perry Mason novel ‘The Case of the Velvet Claws’ was published in 1933 and he further wrote 84 books about the character. Gardner did not waste much time or effort in character delineation and most of his characters are pasteboard . He was a solid plotter though and his encyclopedic legal knowledge led to his using several little known points of law in his books .

 The success of the series led to Perry Mason, his secretary and girl friend Della Street, his friend the laconic Private Detective Paul Drake and friendly rival Lieutenant Tragg of the police becoming household names along with his main antagonist in the courtroom District Attorney Hamilton Burger. The success of the series led to the stories being featured on radio , numerous feature films and a long running CBS TV Show which made Raymond Burr a star for his portrayal of Perry Mason.

Other than the Mason books Gardner also wrote the excellent Bertha Cool and Donald Lam mysteries. Cool and Lam were Private Detectives and not lawyers but again the plots hinged around points of law. Gardner also wrote a series where the hero Doug Selby was the District Attorney who came out on top for a change, the antithesis of Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason books.

One of the best courtroom novels I have read is ‘ Anatomy of a Murder’ by Robert Traver. This bestseller from 1958 is the story of Army Lieutenant Frederic Manion who confesses to killing an inn-keeper who, he says, raped his wife. He however has no memory of pulling the trigger and this is used as the basis for his defence by lawyer Paul Biegler. A riveting novel, it was filmed in 1959 by Otto Preminger and starred James Stewart and Lee Remick.

I usually find movies based on books disappointing and nowhere near as good as the original but this is one genre, probably due to the dramatic atmosphere of a courtroom and the scope it allows the actors to parade their talent, where most movies are almost as good as the books they are based on. Anatomy of a Murder is a terrific book and the film is just as good.

Science Vs superstition

An all time classic and a coming of age novel with a courtroom trial as it’s centre point is Harper Lee’s much loved ‘ To Kill a Mockingbird’(1960).  Lawyer Atticus Finch ( a riveting performance in the 1962 movie version by Gregory Peck) defends his coloured client Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman in the deeply racially divided American South of the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is a must read book, even for those who have no interest in legal matters, and in Atticus Finch Lee has created a character who is the embodiment of what a good lawyer should be, unbiased, honest and willing to stand up for what he believes is right. 

‘Inherit the Wind’ (1955) a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is a fictionalized account of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ trial of 1925 wherein John T. Scopes was convicted for teaching Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ in a High School science class contrary to the provisions of Tennessee State Law.  Famed attorneys William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were on opposite sides of the fence during the trial which is an allegory on the ‘science versus superstition’ debate as also a thinly veiled attack on the McCarthy era when intellectual freedom came under threat.

This brilliant play is a must read especially in current times when these issues have become relevant again. It was filmed in 1960 with Spencer Tracy and Frederic March going hammer and tongs at each other in the courtroom. It was remade three time for television with Ed Begley and Melvyn Douglas (1965) , Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas (1988) and Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott (1999). The film version from 1960 and the 1999 TV version are my favourites which I have watched several times over. 

The Herman Wouk classic ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (1951) concerns the Court Martial arising out of the mutiny by the crew of destroyer minesweeper USS Caine, against their Commander the seemingly inept martinet Philip Francis Queeg.  The novel is a riveting account of men at war and the difficult decisions they have to make . It provides no easy answers and all the characters are portrayed in shades of grey. The film version from 1954 boasts a standout performance from Humphrey Bogart as Commander Queeg and an equally good one from Fred Mac Murray ( a favourite of mine) as Lt. Tom Keefer. 

A classic courtroom mystery was Agatha Christie’s short story ‘ Witness For The Prosecution’ originally titled ‘Traitor’s Hands’ (1925)which  then became a long running and successful play. It was also filmed in 1957 with Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton and has also been produced on TV several times.  The story features the trial of Leonard Vole who is accused of murdering an older woman, Emily French. When Leonard’s wife Romaine agrees to testify, she does not do so to defend her husband but as a witness for the prosecution.  All is not as it seems on the surface, however, as you would expect  in a story from the Queen of Crime.

John Mortimer and Henry Cecil

One of the finest series of courtroom based books is John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey series. First scripted for a very successful TV series,  Mortimer later rewrote the scripts in a series of short stories and novels.  The middle aged curmudgeonly Rumpole usually defends the underdogs, those often looked down upon by his fellow barristers.  Rumpole has an unwavering faith in the inherent good in people and is willing to stand up to and even cock a snook at the awful majesty of the law.

The despair of the various long suffering Magistrates and Judges he comes up against, there is only one person he holds in awe, his wife Hilda who he refers to as She Who Must Be Obeyed ( those who have read H. Rider Haggard will get the reference).  This is the closest you’ll get to a Wodehousian legal series and it’s a must read. Leo McKern starred as Horace Rumpole in the TV series which is also a must watch.

Henry Cecil Leon was a Judge who wrote a series of light hearted books gently lampooning the British Legal System.  His books feature white collar criminals seeking to exploit the loopholes in the legal system. Though not a series some of his books featured recurring characters . Some of the books were also made into feature films. Cecil is a fine writer, one ripe for rediscovery.

The above are just a few of the books in the genre I have enjoyed. In almost all the cases the film / TV adaptations have been terrific too.  For those wanting to dip a toe into the genre for the first time, any of the above books / movies will do for a start. Three more movies that come to mind are ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (1957) with an ensemble cast including Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam and Ed Begley, ‘ A Few Good Men’ (1992) with an absolute knockout of a performance by Jack Nicholson and my all time favourite comedy ‘ My Cousin Vinny’(1992) with Joe Pesci , the delicious  Marisa Tomei who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role and , last but not least,  Fred Gwynne ( Herman Munster from the classic TV sitcom ‘The Munsters’) as the long suffering Judge.


Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

1 Comment

  1. My favourites include, Grisham s Rain Maker featuring a lawyer s very first case and , as yu pointed out, Nicholson s riveting performance in A few good men and, marisa tomei s lovely style of talking in my cousin Vinny

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