Call the next witness

Our mystery columnist puts three legal thrillers on trial.

Published February 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

It is easy to see why legal thrillers have been so popular in the past decade. The trial attorney is a quintessential '90s hero -- a lone cowboy who gets to wear a white hat with his pinstriped suit. He gets to live up to youthful fantasies of righteous yet cunning iconoclasm while fitting neatly into a highly structured environment, the court, where there is a clear winner and loser. No matter what little quirks are thrown in at the end -- what Pyrrhic victories, what uncollectible judgments, what regretted intentions -- our hero always gets his verdict. He gets to fight authority, and then he gets to triumph in the most obvious, explicit, here-and-now, authoritarian sense. (By "he" I mean the masculine sort of person, not the human sort. The writers I am talking about are men, and their main characters are men. A novel by a Lia Matera or Lisa Scottoline is, in the end, a whole other kettle of counterclaims.)

The court -- like that quintessential '90s vehicle, the SUV -- is where vague notions of adventure can intersect with making it big time. If the lawyer's cause is just and its success depends on his success, there is bound to be some confusion between doing good and doing well -- a confusion that is readily embraced in these stock-enhanced times.

That said -- and I've said far worse -- I should add that I love the genre. The arcane rules! The wiliness! The chicanery! Still, I'm surprised at how many people are writing these things. Although the monetary rewards can be great -- John Grisham's glow could not be more golden -- the form is one of the most rigid I know. A trial is a trial; every reader is familiar with its shape. A defense attorney, a prosecutor, the accused, a judge, some witnesses: The cast of characters is as inflexible and unwieldy as the court building itself. (Civil cases are the exception.) It is a rare legal thriller that does not feature the defense attorney as the hero. Vogues in murderers come and go (for a while the judge was popular), but in the end you're still stuck with the same old cast members. Fooling with the witnesses can at least give you some elbow room, and three new mysteries pay special attention to them.

In "Nothing but the Truth" John Lescroart, the most flavorful of legal-thriller writers, starts off in happily predictable fashion. Ditmas Hardy, his hard-drinking defense attorney, is in court while three cases are summarily dealt with: comedy, tragedy, triumph. Bam, bam, bam. Then Hardy's office calls: His wife has not picked up the kids at school. Now that we have seen the court process from the outside, we move to the inside. The point of view switches to the wife, who has been called in front of a grand jury. The assistant district attorney bullies her; she keeps saying she has to go get her children; he misleads her; she in fact does know something about a friend she has promised not to reveal; the ADA sneers and insinuates; she loses her temper and ends up in jail.

Robert Benchley once wrote an essay in which he fantasized about being a successful witness. When the opposing attorney snidely cross-examines him, he maintains his composure with just enough irony to amuse the judge. This fantasy must be all the more prevalent now, thanks to "Court TV": How would I do up there on the witness stand? As an answer, what happens to Hardy's wife emerges full-blown from a nightmare.

It is a smart way to start a legal thriller. Rich or poor, people caught up in murder cases do not seem "like us." This woman's experience is so immediately engaging that it gives credence to Lescroart's less-familiar-feeling scenes.

The book is set in San Francisco, but it would fit easily into the Boston that produced Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah" and James Carroll's "The City Below." Lescroart always gives the sense of a society teeming with civil servants of various temperaments and ethnic backgrounds. Every once in a while a politician or two get thrown up out of the murk. There are, among others, a Jewish African-American head of homicide, a liberal Irish candidate for governor, a sexually frustrated corporate VP, an understanding bartender, a broken-down but invaluable old alcoholic attorney, lots more cops and lawyers and assorted scheming lobbyists.

The plot concerns gasoline additives. It turns out you don't need them. Unfortunately, this revelation comes in a passage that seems to be italicized solely to indicate lazy storytelling. But aside from that lapse the narrative moves along at a nice jog-trot. Lescroart is a very loose, baggy writer. He is shrewd yet generous. He can actually get inside a lot of different characters and has the gift of making more than one of them look in the right at the same time. He is great fun to read. In other words, you can tell he's not a lawyer.

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Barry Siegel's world is much narrower and drier, filled with moral quandaries that can be a bit obscure to the layperson. He makes you relieved that you are a layperson, in fact, and can just come out and say what you think.

In Siegel's fiction, words not uttered -- on or off the stand -- are more important than those that are. Where "Nothing but the Truth" is immediately anchored by the wife's distress, Siegel's latest novel, "Actual Innocence," is haunted by an earlier quandary of defense attorney Greg Monarch's. In a gas station parking lot, a psychopathic killer had told Monarch he'd murdered a 7-Eleven clerk, and Monarch had approached the DA, without revealing any names, to arrange for the man's commitment to a mental hospital. But the DA, interested solely in a prosecutable case and counting on Monarch's desire to get this lunatic off the streets before he killed again, wouldn't agree, leaving Monarch paralyzed: He could not violate attorney-client privilege, however the relationship had come about.

In Siegel's previous mystery, "Perfect Witness," the eponymous witness carries the plot on her strong, lively, devious, sociopathic back. The book is thoughtful and twisty -- surprisingly poised for a fiction debut. In "Actual Innocence," the female-trickster role is divided between two women: a tough-old-gal witness and a convicted murderer awaiting execution who just happens to be an old girlfriend of our hero's -- a girlfriend he had for three years, who was driven insane by the urge to write and ended up waving a knife in front of a cat. The book is handicapped right off by this sillier premise.

The best sections are on how evidence can be cooked up -- and how it can stay cooked despite a lot of good intentions. Like Lescroart, Siegel tells his story from different points of view, but the effect is more committeelike than societal. He is, however, better than Lescroart at hinting around at, and then explaining, the environmental hanky-panky that gives the book its up-to-date feel. "Actual Innocence" is clumsier than "Perfect Witness." But it will still encourage those who are always on the lookout for another legal-thriller writer one can actually read. (Sometimes I suspect that publishing houses will put out anything with a legal term on its title page. If you don't believe me, take a look at Brad Meltzer's latest.)

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In Steve Martini's new book, "The Attorney" (huh? as if any of his many other books featuring Paul Madriani couldn't have been called that), the cross-examination of our hero's girlfriend occurs later on in the book. She is the director of an agency that investigates child abuse, and she has given him confidential information concerning an accusation against a client. We've all been trained to accept egregious violations of rules, especially in dutifully commercial plots like this one, so it's nice to see some consequences for a change. And certainly there is energy in Martini's very colloquial present-tense narrative. But the writing is awkward. Worse, the setup feels very strained. I know a legal thriller is supposed to be preposterous, and I don't mind when some of the seams show, but I don't want the buttons popping off and hitting me in the eye.

By Jacqueline Carey

Jacqueline Carey is the author of "The Other Family," a novel, and "Good Gossip," a collection of short stories. Her book reviews also appear in the New York Times.

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