The Shanghai Five — Favorite Lawyers in Crime Fiction
“You should have let me live. You’re going to need a good lawyer.”
— Marco Bannister’s dying words in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI
Lately I’ve been pulling some of my smelly books from the shelf. These are the oldies that crackle when you fold back the cover and shed those brittle little dog-ear whirlybirds when you ruffle the pages. There’s often an inscription on the title page reminding you that these smudgy gems started life as gifts for “Addie” or “Thom.” The smell is that moldy waft that powders the air in used bookshops everywhere.
I’ve been stretching to the oldies shelf because the reissue of my first novel FICKLE and the pending publication of my second, FIVE DEAD GUYS AND A GIRL, both by Diversion Books (yah Diversion!), scored me an invite from my students to speak at a symposium they’re putting on about the role of law in crime fiction. For a professor, there’s nothing more flattering than having your students discern that you have a life out from behind the podium. Plus I’m hugely impressed that a group of law students committed to such a creative theme. So I need to deliver.
I write noir, and since that’s why I was invited, that’s where I planned to focus. Still, I decided I needed broader perspective before I honed in. So I scurried through a rough refresher on the history of crime fiction, careening first through the Sherlock Holmes era, where armchair savants baffle the cops; then jumping to the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe era of shady private eyes; then on to the Naked City era of cops and lawyers churning through their daily grind; to the Tom Ripley era, where cool psychotics outwit the law; the Dudley Smith era of cop brutality; and finally into the Mitch McDeere era, where unidealized lawyers fumble toward justice through their emotional baggage. Next, with this crime fiction arc afloat before my eyes, I spent a bit of time in a dark ponder (it’s a method — you douse the lights, lower the shades, clamp down the laptop, and lie on your back, preferably under your desk. Time passes. Lo and behold . . . you relearn thinking). Finally, I did the dirty — I foraged my oldies.
And I was rewarded, by which I mean what I discovered surprised me: hey, guess what, the representatives of law in crime fiction are actually interesting. Where I’d expected one-dimensionality and disdain — cops are clods, lawyers are snakes — I found diversity, some complexity, and a serious lack of animus. Now, you would think that stories focusing on nihilism and the souring of the American dream would have a pretty damning attitude about the law and lawyers. But they don’t, at least not always. And, as I allow my thoughts on that issue to percolate further, I came up with a “remarkable crime fiction lawyers” list from my adventure in speed-reading. It’s below.
The Trope of the Treacherous Lawyer
First, however, I should make clear that I don’t mean to dismiss the stereotypic crime fiction self-dealing lawyer as somehow unworthy or unwelcome. Tropes are a enjoyable element of genre fiction, particularly noir — who doesn’t love a baffled every-guy, a wise-cracking p.i., and thugs and gunsels and femme fatales? Cops and lawyers in these classic crime fiction set-ups tend to play a collateral role. Picture Mr. Eels from RAISE MY GALLOWS HIGH or Mr. Winesap from ANGEL HEART — fact is, you probably can’t. Lawyers in crime fiction seemed to be there to create the vague impression that whatever criminal scheme is going down includes sins of a cerebral nature. Lawyers cook the books, launder the cash, and thread the loopholes, often without much detail. They demonstrate that the justice system is corrupt and, as a bonus, often add to the body count.
The lawyers in old-style crime fiction who stick around the plot long enough to rate a physical description often fit a certain image: confident, well-built with good teeth and hair and taste, but also with a distinctly unsavory je-ne-sais-quoi going on. Take lawyer Lee Grimsby from Sherwood King’s 1938 pulp IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE, who launches the story by casually conning his driver into an insurance fraud scheme. Grimsby “was pretty good-looking with his glasses off. His short, wiry gold hair, actor’s profile and powerful build probably had made him a devil with the women when he was young. Maybe still, for all I knew.” Nasty from the word go, no? Same with the more fully wrought Alonzo Emmerich in W.R. Burnett’s 1949 top-notch heist novel THE ASPHALT JUNGLE: “Emmerich was a big man in his fifties. His iron-grey hair was thick and curly, his shoulders broad, his chest deep. He looked in good trim except for a slight sagging of the flesh around his jowls. The dinner coat he was wearing was a very expensive one, beautifully tailored . . . . Emmerich’s racket was boyishness. He smiled and moved and gestured like an adolescent.” Edmund Walker, the crooked lawyer in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1980 original screenplay BODY HEAT could be Emmerich’s double: “He is not what [protagonist Ned] Racine expected. He may, in fact, be mean . . . but he looks neither small nor weak. A handsome man, he is bigger than Racine and in terrific shape. Dressed in an expensive summer suit, he radiates vigor and controlled physical power. He wears sleek, metal-framed glasses.” Michael Rudnick, the lawyer-villain-victim in Jason Starr’s excellent 2002 neo-noir HARD FEELINGS is cut from the same cloth: “He was standing . . . in a black business suit and dark sunglasses, looking in my direction, but apparently not noticing me. . . . I guess it was incredible that I recognized him at all. He used to be overweight with horrible acne and frizzy brown hair. Now he was tall, tan, and muscular and his thick dark hair was slicked back with gel.” These lawyers strut into the plot, glowing with health and self-satisfaction, for the sole purpose of making the reader feel happy about their downfall.
My own novels, both neo-noirs, riff on this stock image of both lawyers and their profession. FICKLE is an epistolary murder mystery spun out entirely in blog posts, in which a group of noir fans play increasingly edgy late night games with one another’s heads. Dark, dangerous stuff ensues — suicide, seduction, then a cover-up murder. Slick Mr. Groin, the Boston Brahmin’s attorney of choice, is dapper, smart, selfish, and quite the pig toward our indie publishing house editor nerd-hot heroine, blog-mistress l.g.fickel, who blogs: “I give you the . . . lawyer: late thirties, well-constructed with a piston-and-rod quality to his movements, shiny black hair sleeked back from his forehead (I’d say damp from the rain but I smelled the pomade)—lovely olive-green suit (Caraceni, anyone?). Overall, he created an impression of being quite handsome in a F. Scott Fitzgerald-y sort of way, and so I assumed he was until at some point I finally happened to look directly at his face, at which point I was surprised to find that the man is actually rather ugly, his eyes flat and empty, nostrils like black holes, lips thin and blood red, facial bone structure somehow cruel and off-kilter. Let me anticipate your view of this lawyer by dubbing him Mr. Groin. The man was nothing if not a complete dick, as you will see.” And when l.g. fickel gets way too deep into the ugly nightlife she’s created, the law proves as unpalatable as the lawyer.
Likewise in my FIVE DEAD GUYS AND A GIRL, I play off the classic noir stereotype. Elliot Becker, white-shoe Lothario, is a legend in his own mind as he plays the Boston legal scene quite profitably. Here he is strolling into the plot, as observed by his soon-to-be killer: “Elliot feels a little self-conscious, I notice, a little old . . . Still, as he descends into the throng, I sense the corners of his lips twitching and catch a ghost of a dimple, creasing his cheek. Ah, yes, Elliot knows the game. He is a womanizer – un coureur de jupons – by instinct. Indeed, he is here to meet me, although he has not yet realized this. He knocks a few shoulders, just for kicks.” It’s not a spoiler to admit that Elliot’s horn-dog propensities prove to be his fatal flaw, as it’s in this opening chapter that our anti-heroine sets her ill-fated star by toppling Elliot backwards and bare-assed over the rail of a hotel rooftop terrace after luring him there with the promise of some oral bliss. The law, like the lawyer, has failed our vigilante femme fatale, and so she turns to murder as a sort of inverted morality.
So there we have the rule of law and lawyers in most of your old-style crime fiction — law is inherently amoral and arcane, and thus a tool of the unscrupulous upper class and, as such, a symbol of systemic cultural corruption. Against this backdrop, here are a few who either break the mold or at least affirm it with their own style and vigor — five crime fiction lawyers worth remembering.
Mr. Mayherne — Agatha Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1925)
This short story, originally published in 1925 under the title TRAITOR HANDS, shows Christie’s talents at their best. The plot seems almost commonplace until the final twist, which is ingenious and quintessentially Christie. The three characters — Mr. Mayherne the solicitor, Leonard Vole the defendant standing trial for murder, and Romaine Heilger, Vole’s alibi witness — are deftly sketched, with the third person narrative told from the perspective of Mr. Mayherne as he navigates the investigation of the witness who has turned against his client and promises to send him to the gallows. Christie introduces him in terms meant to ensure the reader’s confidence: “Mr. Mayherne was a small man, precise in manner, neatly, not to say foppishly dressed, with a pair of very shrewd and piercing grey eyes. By no means a fool. Indeed, as a solicitor, Mr. Mayherne’s reputation stood very high.” In these few features, Christie’s solicitor is fully rendered and credible. And so the reader is “with” Mayherne.
Through the short tale, Mayherne notices detail, second-guesses his impressions, handles an unsavory informant, and works to control a nervous habit of polishing his pince-nez. In short, he’s relatable. In his role as a solicitor, as opposed to the barrister who argues Mr. Vole’s case in court, Mayherne serves more in the nature of a counselor, investigator, and guide to his client. As if to emphasize the less flamboyant nature of the role, Christie repeatedly references Mr. Mayherne’s small stature and sympathetic nature. It is also a set-up for the story’s ending, which diminishes the lawyer (and us) for the presumptions he (and we) carried with him through the trial. All in all, Mayherne is a decent man, a feature of the character maintained in Christie’s play and the film iterations of the tale. Interestingly, most of these expanded versions of WITNESS relegate Mayherne to a supporting role, preferring the barrister, barely described in the original story, as the lead. The drama of court and the larger-than-life personalities of those who operate there, it seems, were features needed to translate Christie’s gem of a crime story into performance art. But the original lawyer was a true everyman, and in this Christie bucked the image of the lawyer as a soulless manipulator.
Mr. Katz — James M. Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934)
POSTMAN is a prototypical noir even under the fiercest aficionado’s narrowest definition of the genre. Drifter Frank Chambers stumbles into the lives of trusting fool Nick Papadakis and his restless wife Cora. Soon Frank and Cora are planning a really sloppy murder. When everything goes wrong, Frank ends up with Mr. Katz as his attorney. Katz plays a small but pivotal role in POSTMAN, and thus only shows up in a few key scenes. Still, Cain’s talent brings him to life: “He was a little guy, about forty years old, with a leathery face and a black moustache . . . . He just sat there, with his eyes half shut and one leg hung over the arm of the chair, and his hat on the back of his head, and that was all. . . . He might be asleep, but even asleep he looked like he knew more than most guys awake . . .”
Katz could have been a threatening element of the tale, particularly when he takes Cora’s full confession. Instead, his quick legwork and prescience springs the lovers. In his final scene he struts a bit, gleefully explaining his winning strategy, then waiving his fee! Apparently, beating his rival the prosecutor in the litigation game is gratification enough. It may seem odd that Cain passed on the obvious opportunity to make Katz a villain. Not only is the greedy lawyer a trope in far less bleak forms of fiction, but it also would have advanced noir’s primary message of cynicism. Nevertheless, as Katz exits the story there is no hint of blackmail, no moral sermon, not even any cognizance of the fact that on the basis of Katz’s lawyering two killers will walk. In this scene, as in its entirety, POSTMAN belies the notion that writers of noir meant to offer escapist or fantasy fiction — Katz is an advocate, nothing more or less, and as such he is a strikingly realistic figure in a tale of unvarnished realism.
Perry Mason — Erle Stanley Gardner’s THE CASE OF THE VELVET CLAWS (1933)
Over a four-decade span, Gardner published over eighty pulps featuring criminal defense attorney Perry Mason. Gardner was a lawyer and it showed from the start in the authenticity of Mason’s method — between and among the flying fists, midnight tail jobs, and lying vixens there was research, verification, and strategizing that Gardner somehow made part of the action. VELVET CLAWS was the first Mason tale, and though it did not involve the courtroom revelation scene that became the series staple, the law and the lawyer’s role were the central theme. Late in the book, Mason expounds a bit on how he owed his best effort to a client in spite of her having attempted to frame him for a murder: “I’m a lawyer. I take people who are in trouble, and I try to get them out of trouble. I’m not presenting the people’s side of the case, I’m only presenting the defendant’s side. The District Attorney represents the people, and he makes the strongest kind of a case he can. It’s my duty to make the strongest kind of a case I can on the other side, and then it’s up to the jury to decide. That’s the way we get justice. . . . It’s like two teams playing football.” The game imagery may seem surprising in such a righteous speech, but apparently it worked for Gardner, who used it to introduce his heroic lawyer to readers: “His face in repose was like the face of a chess player who is studying the board. . . . Only the eyes changed expression. He gave the impression of being a thinker and a fighter, a man who could work with infinite patience to jockey an adversary into just the right position, and then finish him with one terrific punch.” And again, later, when Mason is strategizing: “His face was set in lines of patient concentration, his eyes glittered. He seemed like some pugilist seated in his corner, waiting for the gong to ring. Yet there was no expression of nervousness upon his face. The only thing which indicated strain was the fact that he had been lighting cigarettes, one after the other, for more than an hour.” Gardner’s ability to elicit suspense and activity from scenes involving a man sitting at his desk, thinking, was key to his success in presenting Mason as a lawyer-cum-action hero.
Mason certainly skirted the letter of the law from time to time. In VELVET CLAW, for example, he several times advises clients to lie to the cops, induces a confession by paying witnesses to suppress or invent evidence, and even impersonates an officer of the law. None of this happens in the courtroom or under oath, and Mason brushes it off as tactical when accused of blackmail and fraud. Indeed, Mason is all the more impressive in his embrace of the ugly elements of lawyering: “If you look me up through some family lawyer or some corporation lawyer, he’ll probably tell you that I’m a shyster. If you look me up through some chap in the District Attorney’s office, he’ll tell you that I’m a dangerous antagonist . . .” In the end, the Perry Mason series may be American crime fiction’s all-time most powerful and realistic endorsement of how lawyers operate in a complex, imperfect legal system.
Marco Bannister — Sherwood King’s IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE (1938)
A rare example of a lawyer playing a prominent role in a noir pulp is the character of Marco Bannister. Noir fans will recognize the tale’s core as the basis of the film noir classic THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, adapted by Orson Welles in 1947. Involving a typical noir love triangle among defense attorney Bannister, his ex-chorus girl wife Elsa, and their rootless chauffeur Laurence Planter, IF I DIE makes its mark by having Bannister defend Laurence in the capital case brought after Bannister’s law partner is murdered. Bannister has discovered Laurence and Elsa’s affair, and King elicits suspense from the prospect that Bannister may throw the case to punish Laurence. Indeed, although Bannister is never openly established as corrupt, the reader learns that he has engineered the winning defense of at least one husband-killer, and he counsels Laurence to stick to a confession after Laurence admits he lied. The image of the reputable lawyer who operates by twisting facts and law to his advantage is echoed in Bannister’s physicality. Bannister is “handsome” with “sleek black hair” but “[c]lose up his features were too sharp, his cheeks too pinched,” while his “[d]eep-set black eyes under dark brows gave him a brooding and defiant look.” If the reader fails to catch the hint of Bannister’s villainy from the above, King also makes him crippled so that the otherwise strapping forty-year old walks in a “comic, jerky way.” He seems to obsess over his damaged physicality, even admitting that it is his motive for taking on a young, fit chauffer to accompany his young, fit wife to the beach.
IF I DIE may be somewhat ham-handed in its depiction of the law and lawyers as disfigured by corruption, but the character of Marco Bannister makes a more nuanced impression than it might. It’s interesting, for example, to learn that Bannister’s injury is from a World War I shell blast, but the character seems to take no pride in his own patriotic sacrifice. That, combined with his Italian first name and vaguely Mediterranean facial features, may have been intended to hint at his being a first-generation American citizen and thus somehow less than those around him. His marriage to a girl half his age and his impetuous acquisition of the very physical Laurence — they meet when Laurence emerges from the ocean on Bannister’s estate, and several times in the following chapters Marco openly admires Laurence’s physique — add to the sense of a character ruled by a yearning to be someone he is not. Bannister drinks to excess, rants bitterly about his lost youth (he is in his early forties), and worships his wife while purposely placing temptation in her path. Marco Bannister is a skilled and famously accomplished lawyer, consumed by a intense lack of fulfillment. Intended or not, in the character of Marco Bannister IF I DIE makes a profound statement about the institution of law.
Lorna Weinberg — James Ellroy’s CLANDESTINE (1982)
CLANDESTINE was Ellroy’s first published novel, and in it he introduces a number of themes and even characters appearing in later novels. Prominent among these is cop Dudley Smith, an unforgettable character who personifies the mix of personal ambition, crusade against moral indecency, and license to use brute force that merge policing and criminal brutality. A primary theme is the tricky tango cops dance in their abuse of law in pursuit of justice, as protagonist Fred Underhill first pursues, then veers from the path Smith presents him. In the Dudley Smith section of the novel, Underhill attempts to embrace the persona of the corrupt cop with a righteous cause. He’s uncomfortably adept at the near-Gestapo tactics of Smith and his minions, but he’s a better man for failing, and a better cop both before and after his ambitions get a grip on his essential moral compass.
As the protagonist, Fred is the story’s primary representative of the criminal system, but another important character is Lorna Weinberg. Ellroy presents CLANDESTINE in the dark-yet-intimate tones of noir, with Fred as the flawed hero tempted by life’s underbelly, and when he’s introduced to Lorna by her comic-kingpin father at his country club, she beats the cop in a verbal sparring match like any effective femme fatale should. Ellroy is tricking us on two fronts: Lorna not only turns out to be a district attorney and something of a moral crusader, but her seeming flawless beauty is marred by the fact that she’s crippled. At first, it’s difficult for anyone familiar with IF I DIE BEFORE I WAKE to avoid wondering if Ellroy intended to burden Lorna with the character failings of Marco Bannister, as the similarities — wealth, talent, both specimens of beauty embittered by their physical infirmity — are all there. But it is the contrasts that emerge as Lorna’s stronger traits. Indeed, it is Lorna’s calling to fight the good fight for justice, which fundamentally contrasts Fred’s disillusionment with the legal system, that ultimately drives them apart. Rather than warring it out with the corrupt Dudley Smith, Fred abandons his cop career without a backward look. Lorna is borne along on Fred’s “lam” by infatuation and the need to escape the political fallout following her involvement in Fred’s downfall, but unlike Fred she regrets abandoning her calling. Ellroy doesn’t allow Lorna to specify whether it is the political theater or the justice crusade that she misses more. Either way, the character, like Perry Mason and POSTMAN’S Mr. Katz, perceives the law as a contest worthy of their best efforts.
Closing Thoughts — Lawyers in Crime Fiction are . . . a Complicated Thing
We crime fiction fans love breaking the law. We’d rather read than do time, though, so we do our dabbling in crime vicariously. We try ourselves out as the guy tempted into a crime — Leonard Vole, Frank Chambers, Laurence Planter. That makes the typical crime fiction lawyers — the swaggering Lee Grisby, Edmund Walker, Elliot Becker, who manipulate the law and wouldn’t defend a poor chump on a bet — our enemies. These stereotypic perverters of justice earn our contempt, and we enjoy the pitiless delight we experience at their fate. On the other hand, we dabblers in crime need our Mr. Mayherne, our Mr. Katz, our Perry Mason and Lorna Weinberg. We want our defenders of moral justice dogged, cerebral, and devoted to truth. All these years, I’ve presumed it was the Hays Code that forced all classic crime flicks to end with moral redemption and order restored. Could it have been something about our own need for redemption from our vicarious lapses?
by Peter Manus (1/3/17)