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FIVE LEGAL THRILLERS YOU’LL LOVE—EVEN IF YOU DON’T LOVE LEGAL THRILLERS

When I was a little girl, I used to watch “The Perry Mason Show” with my stepfather, and I was not allowed to say a word until the commercials. My stepdad was a lawyer, and apparently wanted to hear every word. Even though I didn’t understand much of it, I fell in love with Perry, and his knowledge of the law, and how, (except for that once), he always won. I learned that sometimes the police accused the wrong person, and that people were innocent until proved guilty. I learned that the law had rules, and whoever used the rules better would win the case. I learned the rhythm of the Perry Mason stories–how it was never the obvious bad guy, and not the second bad guy, but probably the third bad guy. (Now that I’m a writer, I realize it’s because the show was an hour long. And that lesson in structure has stayed with me ever since.)

Legal thrillers come in and out of fashion, but how could Scott Turow and William Landay and David Ellis and John Grisham ever get old? The best stories of all are the ones lawyers tell—battles full of conflict. Drama. Stakes. Motivation.

In my new THE MURDER LIST, all three main characters are lawyers, each one obsessively wanting to win. Each one, obsessively, will do whatever they need to in order to prevail. Rachel is the law student. She’s married to Jack, the brilliant defense attorney. She’s also the summer intern for the powerful prosecutor. What could go wrong?

Some people don’t like legal thrillers, and that baffles me. What could be more exciting and compelling and nerve-racking and surprising and unpredictable?

There are five stories about the law that’ll help you remember they’re the books and movies you love. (Not even counting To Kill a Mockingbird, which is of course everyone’s favorite.)

Adam’s Rib

As timely right now as it was 70 years ago when it came out. Katherine Hepburn, a defense attorney, is married to Spencer Tracy, a prosecutor. In what I call a drama and my husband calls a comedy–to be fair, the movie studio also calls it a comedy–the two lawyers face off in the same high-stakes case. Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday), charged with attempted murder of her husband after his affair with an exotic and voluptuous other woman. Hepburn argues that her client was a victim of domestic abuse. “There’s no excuse for breaking the law!” Spencer Tracy says—then spanks his wife on the rear. Underneath the banter is serious legal stuff, it’s thought-provoking, groundbreaking, and even profound.

My Cousin Vinny

Sure, this is a comedy too, but again, the legal underpinnings are what makes this work. Novice Joe Pesci, not quite the lawyer he claims to be, swaggers his way into a southern courtroom, and meets his match in the good old boy legal system. What’s so fun about this is how devoted to the law as he is, and how cleverly Vinny not only beats the bad guys at their own game, but proves he knows his legal stuff. It has its own version of a very sweet happy legal ending, too,proving the law makes all of us equal. And if you don’t know how to make grits, you will when this movie is over. And yes, Marisa Tomei as an auto mechanic. Perfection.

Witness for the Prosecution

How many times have you seen Agatha Christie’s play, or the movies that have been made from it? This is the absolute seminal legal drama, perfect and twisty, and every time we watch it, or read it, we are surprised and amazed. Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfred Robarts, whose true devotion to justice (no matter what turns out to be true) shines through at every moment, and the brilliant role played by Marlene Dietrich. When the movie was first shown, theater management included a closing slide, asking audiences not to give away the ending. A majority of scenes take place in the court room, but even in that closed environment, it’s as riveting as anything could be.

Presumed Innocent

You’ve certainly read Scott Turow’s astonishing and groundbreaking novel. Every element of the law is examined and discussed, through the brains and hearts of savvy lawyers and judges. We see how the legal system works, and how a defendant and lawyer must battle their way to the truth, even when it seems all is lost. This book also shows how sometimes cases are won or lost not by the jury, but by the laws that protect juries from human foible. The book did not come with a slide at the end warning readers not to reveal the ending, but it should have.

Compulsion

Both 1956 book by Meyer Levin and 1959 movie from Richard Fleischer tell the terrifying true crime story of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two affluent young men who in 1924 decided to murder a little boy to see if they could get away with the perfect crime, and frankly, to see what it felt like to kill someone. The book and movie do not ask a jury to decide whether Loeb and Leopold are guilty, but only whether they should be given the death penalty. Book and movie brilliantly examine motivation and obsession and even peer pressure. And how a brilliant legal mind can–even when his clients are depraved and guilty–still argue that human beings must be civilized.

Come on, you love those movies, right? Legal thrillers are revealing, astonishing, and the essence of motivation and obsession. Like THE MURDER LIST, they are all about winning, and how far people will go to get the verdict they want.

In all crime fiction, including THE MURDER LIST, you want the good guys to win, and the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. It’s just that in a legal thriller, it’s not always quite clear who the good guy is. Until the end— and that may be even after the final gavel.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is on-air investigative reporter for Boston’s WHDH-TV, winning 36 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. Nationally bestselling author of 11 thrillers, Ryan’s also an award-winner in her second profession—with five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. Critics call her “a master of suspense.” Her novels are Library Journal’s Best of 2014, 2105, and 2016, and her highly acclaimed TRUST ME was chosen for numerous prestigious Best of 2018 lists. Hank’s newest book is THE MURDER LIST. The Library Journal starred review says “Masterly plotted—with a twisted ending—a riveting, character-driven story.”