Defending Jacob

Defending Jacob

by William Landay

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A legal thriller that’s comparable to classics such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent . . . tragic and shocking.”—Associated Press

NOW AN EMMY-NOMINATED ORIGINAL STREAMING SERIES • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY Entertainment Weekly • Boston Globe • Kansas City Star

Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney for two decades. He is respected. Admired in the courtroom. Happy at home with the loves of his life: his wife, Laurie, and their teenage son, Jacob. Then Andy’s quiet suburb is stunned by a shocking crime: a young boy stabbed to death in a leafy park. And an even greater shock: The accused is Andy’s own son—shy, awkward, mysterious Jacob.

Andy believes in Jacob’s innocence. Any parent would. But the pressure mounts. Damning evidence. Doubt. A faltering marriage. The neighbors’ contempt. A murder trial that threatens to obliterate Andy’s family. It is the ultimate test for any parent: How far would you go to protect your child? It is a test of devotion. A test of how well a parent can know a child. For Andy Barber, a man with an iron will and a dark secret, it is a test of guilt and innocence in the deepest sense.

How far would you go?

Praise for Defending Jacob

“A novel like this comes along maybe once a decade . . . a tour de force, a full-blooded legal thriller about a murder trial and the way it shatters a family. With its relentless suspense, its mesmerizing prose, and a shocking twist at the end, it’s every bit as good as Scott Turow’s great Presumed Innocent. But it’s also something more: an indelible domestic drama that calls to mind Ordinary People and We Need to Talk About Kevin. A spellbinding and unforgettable literary crime novel.”—Joseph Finder

Defending Jacob is smart, sophisticated, and suspenseful—capturing both the complexity and stunning fragility of family life.”—Lee Child

“Powerful . . . leaves you gasping breathlessly at each shocking revelation.”—Lisa Gardner

“Disturbing, complex, and gripping, Defending Jacob is impossible to put down. William Landay is a stunning talent.”—Carla Neggers

“Riveting, suspenseful, and emotionally searing.”—Linwood Barclay

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385344227
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 147,045
Product dimensions: 6.48(w) x 9.74(h) x 1.41(d)

About the Author

William Landay is the author of The Strangler, a Los Angeles Times Favorite Crime Book of the Year, and Mission Flats, winner of the Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for Best First Crime Novel and a Barry Award nominee. A former district attorney who holds degrees from Yale and Boston College Law School, Landay lives in Boston, where he is at work on his next novel of suspense.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
In the Grand Jury  
 
Mr. Logiudice:     State your name, please.  
Witness:     Andrew Barber.  
Mr. Logiudice:     What do you do for work, Mr. Barber?  
Witness:  I was an assistant district attorney in this county for 22 years.  
Mr. Logiudice:     "Was." What do you do for work now?  
Witness:  I suppose you'd say I'm unemployed.  
 
In April 2008, Neal Logiudice finally subpoenaed me to appear before the grand jury. By then it was too late. Too late for his case, certainly, but also too late for Logiudice. His reputation was already damaged beyond repair, and his career along with it. A prosecutor can limp along with a damaged reputation for a while, but his colleagues will watch him like wolves and eventually he will be forced out, for the good of the pack. I have seen it many times: an ADA is irreplaceable one day, forgotten the next.  

I have always had a soft spot for Neal Logiudice (pronounced la-JOO-dis). He came to the DA's office a dozen years before this, right out of law school. He was twenty-nine then, short, with thinning hair and a little potbelly. His mouth was overstuffed with teeth; he had to force it shut, like a full suitcase, which left him with a sour, pucker-mouthed expression. I used to get after him not to make this face in front of juries-nobody likes a scold-but he did it unconsciously. He would get up in front of the jury box shaking his head and pursing his lips like a schoolmarm or a priest, and in every juror there stirred a secret desire to vote against him. Inside the office, Logiudice was a bit of an operator and a kiss-ass. He got a lot of teasing. Other ADAs tooled on him endlessly, but he got it from everyone, even people who worked with the office at arm's length-cops, clerks, secretaries, people who did not usually make their contempt for a prosecutor quite so obvious. They called him Milhouse, after a dweeby character on The Simpsons, and they came up with a thousand variations on his name: LoFoolish, LoDoofus, Sid Vicious, Judicious, on and on. But to me, Logiudice was okay. He was just innocent. With the best intentions, he smashed people's lives and never lost a minute of sleep over it. He only went after bad guys, after all. That is the Prosecutor's Fallacy-They are bad guys because I am prosecuting them-and Logiudice was not the first to be fooled by it, so I forgave him for being righteous. I even liked him. I rooted for him precisely because of his oddities, the unpronounceable name, the snaggled teeth-which any of his peers would have had straightened with expensive braces, paid for by Mummy and Daddy-even his naked ambition. I saw something in the guy. An air of sturdiness in the way he bore up under so much rejection, how he just took it and took it. He was obviously a working-class kid determined to get for himself what so many others had simply been handed. In that way, and only in that way, I suppose, he was just like me.  

Now, a dozen years after he arrived in the office, despite all his quirks, he had made it, or nearly made it. Neal Logiudice was First Assistant, the number two man in the Middlesex District Attorney's Office, the DA's right hand and chief trial attorney. He took over the job from me-this kid who once said to me, "Andy, you're exactly what I want to be someday." I should have seen it coming.   In the grand jury room that morning, the jurors were in a sullen, defeated mood. They sat, thirty-odd men and women who had not been clever enough to find a way out of serving, all crammed into those school chairs with teardrop-shaped desks for chair arms. They understood their jobs well enough by now. Grand juries serve for months, and they figure out pretty quickly what the gig is all about: accuse, point your finger, name the wicked one.
 
A grand jury proceeding is not a trial. There is no judge in the room and no defense lawyer. The prosecutor runs the show. It is an investigation and in theory a check on the prosecutor's power, since the grand jury decides whether the prosecutor has enough evidence to haul a suspect into court for trial. If there is enough evidence, the grand jury grants the prosecutor an indictment, his ticket to Superior Court. If not, they return a "no bill" and the case is over before it begins. In practice, no bills are rare. Most grand juries indict. Why not? They only see one side of the case.  
But in this case, I suspect the jurors knew Logiudice did not have a case. Not today. The truth was not going to be found, not with evidence this stale and tainted, not after everything that had happened. It had been over a year already-over twelve months since the body of a fourteen-year-old boy was found in the woods with three stab wounds arranged in a line across the chest as if he'd been forked with a trident. But it was not the time, so much. It was everything else. Too late, and the grand jury knew it.  

I knew it too.  

Only Logiudice was undeterred. He pursed his lips in that odd way of his. He reviewed his notes on a yellow legal pad, considered his next question. He was doing just what I'd taught him. The voice in his head was mine: Never mind how weak your case is. Stick to the system. Play the game the same way it's been played the last five-hundred-odd years, use the same gutter tactic that has always governed cross-examination-lure, trap, fuck.  

He said, "Do you recall when you first heard about the Rifkin boy's murder?"  
"Yes."  
"Describe it."  
"I got a call, I think, first from CPAC-that's thes tate police. Then two more came in right away, one from the Newton police, one from the duty DA. I may have the order wrong, but basically the phone started ringing off the hook."  
"When was this?"  
"Thursday, April 12, 2007, around nine A.M., right after the body was discovered."  
"Why were you called?"  
"I was the First Assistant. I was notified of every murder in the county. It was standard procedure."  
"But you did not keep every case, did you? You did not personally investigate and try every homicide that came in?"  
"No, of course not. I didn't have that kind of time.  I kept very few homicides. Most I assigned to other ADAs."  
"But this one you kept."  
"Yes."  
"Did you decide immediately that you were going to keep it for yourself, or did you only decide that later?"  
"I decided almost immediately."  
"Why? Why did you want this case in particular?"  
"I had an understanding with the district attorney, Lynn Canavan: certain cases I would try personally."  
"What sort of cases?"  
"High-priority cases."  
"Why you?"  
"I was the senior trial lawyer in the office. She wanted to be sure that important cases were handled properly."  
"Who decided if a case was high priority?"  
"Me, in the first instance. In consultation with the district attorney, of course, but things tend to move pretty fast at the beginning. There isn't usually time for a meeting."  
"So you decided the Rifkin murder was a high-priority case?"  
"Of course."  
"Why?"  
"Because it involved the murder of a child. I think we also had an idea it might blow up, catch the media's attention. It was that kind of case. It happened in a wealthy town, with a wealthy victim. We'd already had a few cases like that. At the beginning we did not know exactly what it was, either. In some ways it looked like a schoolhouse killing, a Columbine thing. Basically, we didn't know what the hell it was, but it smelled like a big case. If it had turned out to be a smaller thing, I would have passed it off later, but in those first few hours I had to be sure everything was done right."  
"Did you inform the district attorney that you had a conflict of interest?"  
"No."  
"Why not?"  
"Because I didn't have one."  
"Wasn't your son, Jacob, a classmate of the dead boy?"  
"Yes, but I didn't know the victim. Jacob didn't know him either, as far as I was aware. I'd never even heard the dead boy's name."  
"You did not know the kid. All right. But you did know that he and your son were in the same grade at the same middle school in the same town?"  
"Yes."  
"And you still didn't think you were conflicted out?  You didn't think your objectivity might be called into question?"  
"No. Of course not."  
"Even in hindsight? You insist, you- Even in hindsight, you still don't feel the circumstances gave even the appearance of a conflict?"  
"No, there was nothing improper about it. There was nothing even unusual about it. The fact that I lived in the town where the murder happened? That was a good thing. In smaller counties, the prosecutor often lives in the community where a crime happens, he often knows the people affected by it. So what? So he wants to catch the murderer even more? That's not a conflict of interest. Look, the bottom line is, I have a conflict with all murderers. That's my job. This was a horrible, horrible crime; it was my job to do something about it. I was determined to do just that."  
"Okay." Logiudice lowered his eyes to his pad. No sense attacking the witness so early in his testimony. He would come back to this point later in the day, no doubt, when I was tired. For now, best to keep the temperature down.  
"You understand your Fifth Amendment rights?"  
"Of course."  
"And you have waived them?"  
"Apparently. I'm here. I'm talking."  
Titters from the grand jury.  
Logiudice laid down his pad, and with it he seemed to set aside his game plan for a moment. "Mr. Barber-Andy-could I just ask you something: why not invoke them? Why not remain silent?" The next sentence he left unsaid: That's what I would do.  
I thought for a moment that this was a tactic, a bit of play acting. But Logiudice seemed to mean it. He was worried I was up to something. He did not want to be tricked, to look like a fool.  
I said, "I have no desire to remain silent. I want the truth to come out."  
"No matter what?"  
"I believe in the system, same as you, same as everyone here."  

Now, this was not exactly true. I do not believe in the court system, at least I do not think it is especially good at finding the truth. No lawyer does. We have all seen too many mistakes, too many bad results. A jury verdict is just a guess-a well-intentioned guess, generally, but you simply cannot tell fact from fiction by taking a vote. And yet, despite all that, I do believe in the power of the ritual. I believe in the religious symbolism, the black robes, the marble-columned courthouses like Greek temples. When we hold a trial, we are saying a mass. We are praying together to do what is right and to be protected from danger, and that is worth doing whether or not our prayers are actually heard.  

Of course, Logiudice did not go in for that sort of solemn bullshit. He lived in the lawyer's binary world, guilty or not guilty, and he was determined to keep me pinned there.  

"You believe in the system, do you?" he sniffed. "All right, Andy, let's get back to it, then. We'll let the system do its work." He gave the jury a knowing, smart-ass look.  

Attaboy, Neal. Don't let the witness jump into bed with the jury-you jump into bed with the jury. Jump in there and snuggle right up beside them under the blanket and leave the witness out in the cold. I smirked. I would have stood up and applauded if I'd been allowed to, because I taught him to do precisely this. Why deny myself a little fatherly pride? I must not have been all bad-I turned Neal Logiudice into a half-decent lawyer, after all.  

"So go on already," I said, nuzzling the jury's neck. "Stop screwing around and get on with it, Neal."  

He gave me a look, then picked up his yellow pad again and scanned it, looking for his place. I could practically read the thought spelled out across his forehead: Lure, trap, fuck. "Okay," he said, "let's pick it up at the aftermath of the murder."  
 
2 |
Our Crowd  
April 2007: twelve months earlier.  
 
When the Rifkins opened their home for the shiva, the Jewish period of mourning, it seemed the whole town came. The family would not be allowed to mourn in private. The boy's murder was a public event; the grieving would be as well. The house was so full that when the murmur of conversation occasionally swelled, the whole thing began to feel awkwardly like a party, until the crowd lowered its voice as one, as if an invisible volume knob were being turned.  
I made apologetic faces as I moved through this crowd, repeating "Excuse me," turning this way and that to shuffle by.  

People stared with curious expressions. Someone said, "That's him, that's Andy Barber," but I did not stop. We were four days past the murder now, and everyone knew I was handling the case. They wanted to ask about it, naturally, about suspects and clues and all that, but they did not dare. For the moment, the details of the investigation did not matter, only the raw fact that an innocent kid was dead.  

Murdered! The news sucker-punched them. Newton had no crime to speak of. What the locals knew about violence necessarily came from news reports and TV shows. They had supposed that violent crime was limited to the city, to an underclass of urban hillbillies. They were wrong about that, of course, but they were not fools and they would not have been so shocked by the murder of an adult. What made the Rifkin murder so profane was that it involved one of the town's children. It was a violation of Newton's self-image. For awhile a sign had stood in Newton Centre declaring the place "A Community of Families, A Family of Communities," and you often heard it repeated that Newton was "a good place to raise kids." Which indeed it was. It brimmed with test-prep centers and after-school tutors, karate dojos and Saturday soccer leagues. The town's young parents especially prized this idea of Newton as a child's paradise. Many of them had left the hip, sophisticated city to move here. They had accepted massive expenses, stultifying monotony, and the queasy disappointment of settling for a conventional life. To these ambivalent residents, the whole suburban project made sense only because it was "a good place to raise kids." They had staked everything on it.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“The hype is justified. . . . Exceptionally serious, suspenseful, engrossing.”—The Washington Post

“A legal thriller that’s comparable to classics such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent . . . Tragic and shocking, Defending Jacob is sure to generate buzz.”—Associated Press

“Stunning . . . a novel that comes to you out of the blue and manages to keep you reading feverishly until the whole thing is completed.”—The Huffington Post
 
“Ingenious . . . Nothing is predictable. All bets are off.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Unexpected twists . . . This novel has major motion picture written all over it.”—The Boston Globe
 
“Gripping . . . [Landay] keeps you turning the pages through the shocking gut-punch of an ending.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Landay has proven himself to be an extraordinary writer, and Defending Jacob is AN AMAZING NOVEL. Do yourself a favor and read it. It’s that good.”—Nicholas Sparks

“Defending Jacob is SMART, SOPHISTICATED, AND SUSPENSEFUL—capturing both the complexity and stunning fragility of family life.”—Lee Child

“A powerful portrayal of a family, a crime, and a community, Defending Jacob compels you to flip frantically through the pages, desperate to know what will happen next, then leaves you gasping breathlessly at each shocking revelation. This is a PAGE-TURNER WITH BITE . . . and that’s before you get to the end.”—Lisa Gardner  

“GRIPPING . . . The shocking ending will have readers pulling up their bedcovers to ward off the haunting chill.”—People

“A novel like this comes along maybe once a decade. William Landay’s Defending Jacob is A TOUR DE FORCE, a full-blooded legal thriller about a murder trial and the way it shatters a family.”—Joseph Finder

“HARROWING . . . This searing narrative proves the ancient Greek tragedians were right: The worst punishment is not death but living with what you—knowingly or unknowingly—have done.”—Publishers Weekly

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Guide for Defending Jacob
1. How would you have handled this situation if you were Andy? Would you make the same choices he made? Where would you differ the most?
2. Before and during the trial, how would you have handled the situation if you were Laurie? Do you feel she made strong choices as a mother and a wife?
3. Is Andy a good father? Why or why not?
4. Do you believe Jacob is guilty?
5. Is Jacob a product of his upbringing? Do you think he is he a violent person because his environment makes him violent, or do you think he has violent inclinations since birth?
6. Bulleying is such a hot topic in today's media. How did the author incorporate it into the story, and do you think it's role had anything to do with Jacob's disposition? How do you think people should stop adolescent bullying?
7. How much of a factor did Jacob's age play into your sympathies for him or lack thereof? If Jacob were seventeen, would you view him differently? What about nine?
8. Do you think Neal Logiudice acts ethically in this novel? What about Andy? What about Laurie?
9. What was the most damning piece of evidence against Jacob? Was there anything that you felt exonerated him?
10. If Jacob hadn't been accused, how do you think his life would have turned out? What kind of a man do you think he would grow up to be?

Interviews

A Conversation with William Landay
Interview by Tess Taylor

Andy Barber, the narrator and protagonist in your book, is a guy who went to Yale and to work in a DA's office. You also attended Yale before becoming a DA. Any veiled autobiography here?
Well, certainly I drew on aspects of my own life as I was creating Andy, but there's no "autobiography." I never thought of Andy as a stand-in for myself, even when writing in his voice in first person — when I was pretending to be him. Actually, Andy began as an amalgam of several respected, soft-spoken, older trial lawyers whom I met during my years as an assistant D.A. But a funny thing happens as you write: you begin with a real-life model for a character, but you change him a little, then a little more, and at some point the model falls away and the character emerges as his own person. It's a mysterious fission. In the end, Andy did not resemble any of the lawyers I had in mind when I started.
But Andy is my creation and inevitably aspects of him reflect me, probably in ways more intimate than just biography. For all his fluency in the courtroom, he's essentially an introvert, as I am. He is doggedly loyal, especially in his determination not to abandon his son. Does that make him a good father or a good person? I don't know. Readers will have to decide for themselves. But I like him for it. Wouldn't we all like to think our dads (or spouses or friends) would stand by us, no matter what?
Jacob Barber, the accused murderer in your book, is a teenager, an 8th grader who is being tried as an adult. Are 8th graders currently tried this way in Massachusetts? And why that age? What makes a teenager a rich protagonist?
Yes, this is the current law. In Massachusetts, all defendants age 14 or older accused of first-degree murder are tried as adults, and if convicted they receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
The trial sequence in Defending Jacob is rendered about as accurately as good storytelling allows. Obviously there is compression for pace. Real trials move slowly. Technical rules play a larger part. But I didn't have to depart from reality much. Criminal trials are inherently theatrical — a live dramatic performance leading to the climax of a verdict. That is why writers, practically since Plato, have always been drawn to them.
Choosing to write about a teenager was a personal as well as creative decision. I have two boys myself. They are 8 and 10 years old. Those kids mean everything to me. My books have always been about family, but with Defending Jacob I wanted to write something even closer to my heart, something that would bring together the crime world of my D.A. years and the life that I live now, of being a young father. (I should point out, by the way, that my kids are perfectly well behaved. Neither has been accused of murder, at least! Disturbing the peace, maybe. )
And adolescence is such a powerful, universal experience. Many readers will have a teenager in their lives now or remember the turmoil of being one. It's a difficult time for parents and kids both — full of secrets, hormones, drama. High emotion is a storyteller's red meat.
You seem attuned Jacob's uneasy adolescent ways, particularly how he uses media — Twitter, Facebook, blogging. What about the technological revolution — especially as it's impacting young people — fascinates you?
I'm a bit of a tech geek myself. I use all these new media. Some I enjoy more than others. (Facebook creeps me out, honestly.) But I have no doubt that, whatever you may think of the "social web," it is hard to overstate its influence on our daily lives, especially the lives of young people. These "new media" are now a routine part of how we relate to one another. They tend, ironically, to make us feel less connected. It's fitting that we call them media: they mediate, they add a filter between us that can leave us feeling isolated.
To me, there is nothing inherently frightening in kids using these new ways of communicating. Trading gossip on Facebook isn't all that different from gossiping on the phone or passing notes in class. There is one key difference, though: the reach and anonymity of the web — where a kid sitting alone in his bedroom, feeling emboldened, typing on a laptop, can reach a very large audience — creates the risk of disaster. Ordinary bullying becomes cyber-bullying. Teasing becomes vicious. Kids do get hurt.
In Defending Jacob, the Barbers are shocked to find what their son Jacob has been up to on the Internet. I don't want readers to be freaked out by that aspect of the story, but if they take it as a wake-up call, an opportunity to figure out what their kids are doing online, then that is a good thing.
Your book also has a science angle — exploring something the book calls "the murder gene." When you're crafting evidence for a fictional piece, what kinds of research do you do into, say, contemporary uses of science in the courtroom?
The science in the novel is a very real area of research. It's usually called behavioral genetics — the study of how genes affect behavior.
The subject tends to alarm people. It's important to keep this emerging science in perspective. Genes are not simple triggers. No one is hardwired to commit murder or any other crime. Our actions are always the result of stupendously complex gene-environment interactions, and environment is likely to remain the more important influence by far. Nurture, not nature. At the same time, having mapped the human genome, we are entering a new era in which we finally have real insight into the "nature" side of the debate.
The specific genetic variation mentioned in Defending Jacob, a mutation of the MAOA gene, is quite real. Linked to aggressive behavior, it has been called the "warrior gene." A few details about it were elided to serve the story, but it is generally described accurately.
I learn as much as I can about any scientific issue I use in my books, but I am not a scientist. When push comes to shove, I do fudge facts as necessary to tell a good story. I think the job of novelists — and all artists, I suppose — is not to portray the latest science with 100% accuracy. It is to begin to think about what science means for ordinary people in human terms. Raising questions about science, about its implications for society — that is as important as science itself. We still can't build a human out of parts, but we haven't stopped thinking about Frankenstein. In its own way, Defending Jacob raises similar questions.
Defending Jacob is more psychologically upsetting than actually gory. Act for act, there's less physical violence in this book than in many crime novels — only scattered incidents of bloodshed, suspected but unconfirmed murders. Nevertheless, the weight of what might have happened is heavy. Do you have a philosophy about how much actual violence to show versus how much to imply?
It's simple: I have no problem with storytellers using violence (or sex or profanity) so long as it is true to the story. The trouble comes in using cheap violence — to give an easy thrill or to indulge people's worst impulses (bloodlust, misogyny). It's phony suspense. In Defending Jacob, I didn't need to show much. The foreboding actually reflects how little violence the reader sees.
I was impressed with the book's flow. I devoured it in one gulp, so to speak. Can you let us into your craft? How do you plot a thriller?
Thank you. Well, I outline fanatically. I am a long thinker and a slow writer, though I am trying to get faster. (My children have an unfortunate habit of eating. And outgrowing their clothes. Hence the need to produce more books!) Probably careful plotting reflects my personality. I am meticulous by nature. I can't imagine speed-writing anything that happens to pop into my head.
As for my typical workday, it really depends. Early on, when I am still trying to figure out what my story is, my days can be unstructured and frankly very frustrating. Toward the end, words tend to come in waves and the days get very long. The last fifty pages of Defending Jacob were written in one long sprint over the course of only a few days. I work exclusively on a computer — my outlines, notes and drafts rarely ever get printed out. I often work in coffee shops. So you may see me one day, hunched over a laptop, typing madly with two fingers or (more likely) staring into space.
Who are the writers you are reading now? What recent books inspire you?One of the best parts of becoming a writer is that I have the privilege of reading advance copies of books before they are published. One of these, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson*, absolutely blew me away. It's out in January and I hope lots of people read it. Set in North Korea, it is the story of Pak Jun Do, a man who rises from miserable roots to stand beside the "Dear Leader" himself, Kim Jong-il. It is an epic story — a big book in every sense — and utterly riveting. Kim Jong-il's death has put North Korea in the headlines lately. I hope the increased level of interest somehow helps Adam's amazing novel find the audience it deserves.
[Johnson's novel Parasites Like Us was a Discover Great New Writers selection in 2003. -Ed]

Bonus Essay By The Author: Some thoughts on "The Unwritten Rules of the Legal Thriller"

I have been asked for a few words from on high about "the unwritten rules of the legal thriller." I would be delighted to boil down these rules to a few pithy, authoritative commandments and deliver them in a handy numbered list, like Moses or Tyler Durden. It would be helpful to have the damn things spelled out, finally. But honestly I can think of only one rule for the legal thriller, which is that there are no rules for the legal thriller. There are also no rules for the non-legal thriller, the non-thriller, or any other type of novel. It sounds pedantic, but it's true: "rules" in this context is an optimist's word for clichés. If a writer hears of such a "rule," he should break it right away. It's the only way to produce original, surprising work. Readers, after all, know the "rules" too.

This will be especially disappointing to lawyers, who take a semi-professional interest in the legal thriller and who are sticklers for rules to begin with. I hate to disappoint this audience especially, since I used to be a lawyer myself and I share their weakness for rulemaking. So here, at least, are some general principles. If you want to call them rules, well, that's your business.

A first principle of legal-storytelling, to me, is that story is more important than facts. A writer, however knowledgeable about the legal world, cannot feel bound by the truth. John le Carré put this point succinctly in an interview once: "It is better to be credible than authentic." In other words, it does not matter how things are actually done by real lawyers in the real world. You should feel free to fictionalize — to improve upon reality — in order to produce a good story, so long as you can do it persuasively. You will find that your fictions are often more convincing, more "true," than the truth.

There are many famous examples of this sort of embroidering. Spies never spoke of moles and honeytraps and lamplighters until le Carré invented those terms. Mobsters never "went to the mattresses" until Mario Puzo used that phrase in The Godfather. In each case, actual spies and mobsters soon took up the jargon of their fictional counterparts. Realism was more real than reality. What could reality do but follow along?

Law in particular needs this sort of dramatizing. Any working lawyer knows that in reality the daily practice of law is not the stuff of novels. Cases drag on for years. There is too much paperwork, too much technical procedure, too little drama. All those dull parts have to be edited out. On the other hand, you can easily go too far, as most lawyers-turned-writers do. The action-movie clichés of some legal thrillers — the fistfights and car chases and gymnastic sex and so on — obviously don't ring true. The trick is to invent just enough, to find the drama in what lawyers actually do. That is not as hard as it sounds. You simply have to recall that, in our lawyered-up society, most of the dramatic crises people face — violence, injury, lust, separation, abuse of power, heartbreak of every kind — find their way into the courtroom.

And when they do, what then? You have your premise, a legal case that finds its way to trial. How to describe that trial?

To me, the key is that it is not about the trial, not really. Yes, trials are inherently dramatic. They are built on conflict and confrontation. Naturally, storytellers are drawn to them. But it is always the underlying human struggle — a murder, a divorce, a custody battle, a theft — that is the real source of drama. The trial itself is just the setting, the stage. All the strategy, all the insider-y atmosphere of the courtroom, the cutting-edge legal issues, all the lawyers' business is secondary to the people involved. Character comes first. If the reader doesn't care about the characters, she won't care about the trial either. The entire exercise will feel sterile. It will be just another episode of "Law & Order" — and who, really, ever lost a moment of sleep over "Law & Order"?

So there you have it, the iron laws of the legal thriller. Now go forth and break them.

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