“Neighbors say you had good reason to break into the victim’s house…”
“Objection, Your Honor, hearsay!”
“Sustained. Prosecutor, limit yourself to direct questions.”
“I’ll rephrase, Your Honor.”
The charm of discovering the truth: the legal thriller
This very short exchange between a prosecutor, a defence lawyer and a judge presiding over a courtroom could be a Perry Mason TV show or an episode of Law & Order.
You might be wondering if it is a book you have read, and are now trying to visualise the name of that lawyer whose story you have read which was full of twists and turns, but, what was his name?
From a few lines you immediately recognised the genre?
You have been caught in the act (as they would say in that genre of book and film or TV series)!
It is the legal thriller genre, which started as a sub-genre of crime fiction and became increasingly popular within a few decades. Many writers (often former lawyers or magistrates) have written highly successful books that have gone on to become even more successful films. For example, Earle Stanley Gardner, who created the character of the lawyer Perry Mason in the 1930s and perhaps never imagined that he would see him catapult from the pages of a book to a highly successful series of television films from the 1950s onwards, and very recently a curious television series showing the character at the beginning of his career, before becoming the feared and intuitive defence lawyer.
In the eighties, the genre regained importance with the novels of Scott Turow, but it has become a true cult genre thanks to John Grisham, whose novels have even given us tips on how a trial works, how to build a defence and how to unpick a seemingly unbeatable accusation.
We are talking about millions of copies of books sold and translated almost everywhere in the world, and not always is the story about a ‘crime ‘, sometimes it is a civil trial, a long legal battle between companies trying to get rich clients or controversial real estate, or an inheritance involving several families.
Put that way, one wonders why it can be so interesting to read hundreds of pages about lawyers who enter a courtroom as if they were going to war and are willing to use all means allowed by law (sometimes even bordering on the illegal) to get what they want.
What ingredient in John Grisham’s books makes you read the book in a flash and regret that it ends too quickly?
Emotions and feelings that we all share: our sense of justice, our curiosity to know the truth , the challenge of achieving a goal, and the ability to argue one’s case successfully, to name just a few.
ACTIVITY: Imagine you are a lawyer about to argue an important case. Write a tweet for your client and tell him in 120 characters what your best quality will be in the courtroom.
Before John Grisham… William Shakespeare was at the bar
If we think about it, among the first “legal thrillers” that investigated the sense of justice and the discovery of the truth, we could mention Hamlet, who probes the behaviour of the whole court of Elsinore to discover the truth about the death of his father, who appeared to him as a ghost and revealed to his son that his brother Claudius had killed him to gain access to the throne and asked him to avenge him. The young prince, who in Shakespeare‘s tragedy initially appears doubtful and unable to make decisions, turns out to be a refined and skilful investigator in his painful search. He clashes with Claudius’ thirst for power, with the intrigues of the court, with the weakness of his mother who has allowed herself to be corrupted by Claudius and has married him, and gradually reconstructs everything that has happened. Although Hamlet dies at the end of the play, his long struggle has had the merit of restoring order to the kingdom, of making justice prevail and his father’s death has been avenged.
But it doesn’t end there with Shakespeare.
One of his most famous historical tragedies, Julius Caesar, focuses on the conspiracy against Caesar, his assassination and the motives of the characters who took part in it and reveals the reasons for this death. Shakespeare makes the characters, especially Brutus and Antony, speak, as if they were in a court of law, and the audience listens to the characters arguing, explaining and trying to convince those present (just like a jury) using their persuasive and oratorical skills. Brutus explains why it was right to kill Caesar for the good of Rome.
If there be any in this assembly,
any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to
Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I
loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
But Antony succeeds in convincing the people that Caesar loved the people much more than the conspirators say and overturns the judgement of the ‘jury’ in his favour.
You all did love him once, not without cause;
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts ,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me .
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
The dialogue is passionate and you just have to listen to it or read it and decide who might be right and who really cared about the fate of Rome.
ACTIVITY: In your opinion, do Hamlet, Brutus and Cassius really want to find out the truth or do they just want to take revenge on their enemies? Write a blog post with your opinions about this. If it’s helpful, search the Black Cat website for the Graded Readers catalogue and read the plot of Hamlet and Julius Caesar.
The jury among emotions and truth
After our dive into the past, let’s return to the present and sit in a courtroom again, either in the public gallery or as a member of a jury. This would certainly be a more challenging role because you would have to focus on every word the witnesses say, while at the same time also considering why the questions were being asked, and what idea you have of the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime, whatever it may be.
What do we expect before the trial begins, whether in a book or a film or a TV series? To discover a truth, and probably to understand why a law has been broken.
This is because this genre deals with very real issues, i.e. life in society, issues related to civil coexistence, and at the same time it constantly confronts us with questions such as “what would I do?”, “how would I behave?”, “what would I decide if I were a judge'”, “what question would I ask if I were a lawyer?”. In short, legal thrillers teach us to reason, to argue, to discuss… to grow each time and specialise in a very complex but very important role: to be social individuals and learn to live together with others.
TO GO FURTHER
The missing microscope
A crime has been committed. A microscope was stolen from the science classroom. When the caretaker opened the school at 7 a.m., he found the classroom had been turned upside down. Clues to the theft: overturned drawers, a broken window pane, overturned chairs. The glass containers containing seedlings that were part of an ongoing experiment were left untouched.
As the caretaker was leaving the laboratory, he saw a boy running down the corridor and out of the school and he did not show up at school for a week.
The boy was reported to the headmaster for theft. If he is guilty he will have to pay for the damage, return the microscope or pay for it, and he will be suspended from classes for a fortnight.
Work in groups.
One group has to support the boy’s guilt and therefore prove that he stole the microscope and damaged the classroom.
One group has to prove his innocence.
Each group appoints a judge who listens to the arguments of the opposing group. The two judges will eventually consult to decide on the innocence or guilt of their partner.
Each group, reading the report on the theft printed above in italics, must prepare a document in which they argue their case for innocence or guilt.
A word of advice: reason calmly and do not be misled by prejudices, likes or dislikes.
The activity can also be done in distance learning mode.