Not too many years ago, an influential friend in the literary world told me, “Legal thrillers are out.” Having just published my first two novels, both featuring Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid, I desperately needed this death announcement to be premature. The problem, I argued, was an overabundance of bad legal thrillers that had scarred the subgenre’s once-good name. Perhaps trying to replicate the success of groundbreaking novels like Scott Turow’s PRESUMED INNOCENT and John Grisham’s A TIME TO KILL, publishers had overpurchased and overpromoted courtroom-centric novels by lawyers who managed to turn the term “legal thriller” into an oxymoron. Evidentiary objections, jury selection, and cross-examinations might be real goose bump inducers compared to the average lawyer’s workday, but as ingredients for a page-turner? No, thank you.
Well, I’m delighted to report that, despite my friend’s death knell, law-based crime fiction is alive and well thanks to authors who focus not on blue-in-the-face litigators hollering “Objection!” at one another, but on good old fashioned storytelling about characters who just happen to be lawyers. When the industry had all but written off the so-called “legal thriller” in favor of high concept novels in the spirit of THE DA VINCI CODE, Linda Fairstein and Lisa Scottoline continued to dominate bestsellers’ lists because they wrote damn good books. Today, Michael Connelly has put to rest any lingering questions about the viability of the subgenre by bringing Mickey Haller to every medium — #1 in hardback and digital, and $46 million and counting at the box office. What makes these books irresistible aren’t the bells and whistles of the technical ins and outs of the legal system, but memorable characters and solid plotting in the hands of masterful storytellers.
With GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, Marcia Clark joins the ranks of Scottoline, Fairstein, and Connelly. Her debut novel introduces us to Los Angeles prosecutor Rachel Knight, a member of the office’s elite Special Trials Unit. In the opening pages, Knight’s friend and colleague Jake Pahlmeyer is found dead at a seedy motel under even seedier circumstances. She inherits a high-profile rape case from his desk. While the victim’s father exerts political pressure for an arrest, the investigation takes Rachel into LA’s gang world and makes her a target. As if that weren’t enough to keep a gal busy, she can’t help poking around into Jake’s death, despite strict orders to mind her own bees’ wax.
Like the finest books in the legal thriller subgenre, very few pages of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION take place in the courtroom. Instead, we see Rachel’s interactions with cops, contacts, and witnesses. We see the action as it unfolds, not as it is summarized later in the artificially sterile courtroom setting. We see Rachel at home with her friends. We get to know – and like – her.
Much attention will certainly be paid to Clark’s former career as a prosecutor in Los Angeles, most notably as the head prosecutor in OJ Simpson’s criminal trial. That platform will also undoubtedly bring extraordinary attention to a debut novel. But an unfortunate consequence of any emphasis upon her significant legal career might be an inaccurate perception of the book itself. Clark’s expertise about the criminal justice system leaps from the pages of GUILT BY ASSOCIATION, but not because she shows off her knowledge of the law, rules of evidence, or courtroom procedure. Rather, her experience allows her to write with confidence rarely seen in a first novel – about Los Angeles, about Rachel Knight, about the secondary characters who occupy Knight’s world and become a part of ours. GUILT BY ASSOCIATION succeeds because of Clark’s gifts as a writer, not as a lawyer. With those gifts, she has created a true legal thriller – emphasis on the thrill.
ALAFAIR BURKE is the bestselling author of six novels, including 212, Angel’s Tip, and Dead Connection in the Ellie Hatcher series. A former prosecutor, she now teaches criminal Law and lives in Manhattan. Long Gone, her first stand-alone thriller, will be published by Harper in June 2011. [Read more about Long Gone in her Conversation with Jen Forbus.]