Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS


Case Book: Courtroom Mysteries

A Certain Justice & the Legal Mystery Genre
By Ron Miller

While Commander Adam Dalgliesh searches for the culprit who murdered famed criminal lawyer Venetia Aldridge in A Certain Justice on Mystery!, it might be a good time to note how this thriller fits into a very rich literary genre: the legal or courtroom mystery.

In order to find clues that lead to the killer, Dalgliesh and his investigators must examine not only the past cases tried by the controversial lawyer, but also Aldridge's relationships with her many colleagues at Pawlet Court. And that gives author P.D. James a grand opportunity to turn her incisive eye on the British legal system, warts and all.

By choosing a law office as the backdrop for her detective story, Baroness James joins a long line of other great mystery writers who have set plots in the same environment. It has always been a fruitful one for writers, especially those with some background in law. (P.D. James once served as a magistrate in her native England.)

It's not hard to understand why the legal profession and the mystery make such good companions. Detectives and prosecutors work hand in hand, developing cases against criminals. Defense lawyers also employ detectives to develop evidence to prove the innocence of defendants. And the courtroom is an ideal stage for playing out a mystery drama.

Many early 20th century mystery writers saw the potential in writing novels about lawyers who functioned as detectives. One of the first was Ephraim Tutt, a turn-of-the-century lawyer/sleuth created by writer Arthur Train, who appeared in several volumes of short stories published between 1920 to 1945.

But the most famous of them all came along in 1933, when American lawyer Erle Stanley Gardner, who had practiced law for about two decades, fulfilled his dream of becoming a mystery writer by writing a novel called The Case of the Velvet Claws.

It introduced a young lawyer named Perry Mason, whom Gardner described as a "thinker-fighter," smart enough to jockey his adversaries into just the right position for him to finish them off with a big knockout punch in the courtroom.

Groomed by pulp magazines like Black Mask, Gardner gambled that the public would love a feisty criminal lawyer as a mystery hero, especially if he functioned like a detective.

He was right. Perry Mason became a publishing phenomenon, the central character in more than 80 mystery novels, a popular series of 1930s movies, a radio show, the fabulously successful TV series starring Raymond Burr and, finally, a series of TV movies that brought Burr back to the role in the 1980s.

Before his death in 1970, Gardner certainly knew Perry Mason had become the most famous lawyer in literary history. He probably also realized he'd paved the way for a new mystery sub-genre: the legal thriller.

In fact, Gardner's achievement with Perry Mason still echoes through the mystery world. By writing from his knowledge and experience as a lawyer, Gardner inspired a generation of lawyers to take up mystery writing.

P.D. James' A Certain Justice fits into a different category of legal mystery that developed in the late 20th century, when mystery novels began to tackle more serious subjects with more realistic characters and much more attention to detail.

That trend toward more realism got a big boost from the publication of Anatomy of A Murder in 1958 by Robert Traver, a real-life courtroom judge. Traver's novel contained a deep mystery revealed during a sensational trial. It was a huge best-seller and was turned into a popular movie starring James Stewart.

Since then, a number of real-life lawyers have written "serious" thrillers that, like A Certain Justice, have examined troubling aspects of contemporary American or British society while holding readers in considerable suspense.

Here are a few notable examples of lawyer/authors who now specialize in this genre:

Scott Turow: His best-seller Presumed Innocent waded into the concept of "reasonable doubt" and started the former assistant United States attorney on a new career as a very successful author of legal mysteries.

John Grisham: He was a trial lawyer for a decade and a member of the Mississippi state House of Representatives. He published his first legal thriller, A Time to Kill, in 1988, and has averaged about one a year since, including such mammoth best sellers as The Firm and The Client. Most have been turned into blockbuster movies.

Richard North Patterson: He's a trial lawyer who won the Edgar award with his first legal thriller, The Lasko Tangent, and has produced such subsequent best sellers as Eyes of A Child, Degree of Guilt and No Safe Place.

Lia Matera: She's a teaching fellow at Stanford Law School, who turned to legal mysteries with Where Lawyers Fear to Tread and now writes two mystery series featuring female lawyers Willa Jansson and Laura Di Palma.

Christine McGuire: This prosecuting attorney from Northern California co-authored the non-fiction book Perfect Victim, which sold a million copies, leading her to write Until Proven Guilty (1993), launching a mystery series built around Assistant District Attorney Kathryn Mackay.

Though he doesn't write legal thrillers, another real-life lawyer who has fashioned a distinctive career in the world of mystery is John Mortimer, a British "Q.C." or "queen's counsel," who created Horace Rumpole, the shrewdly-clever, comic "detective" of 10 Rumpole books and the Rumpole of the Bailey TV series for Mystery!.

Because the practice of law provides such a fascinating backdrop, many mystery writers have been unable to resist the temptation to set mysteries there. Certainly one of Agatha Christie's most popular stories was her courtroom thriller, Witness for the Prosecution, which became a popular play and movie. Dorothy L. Sayers also loved courtrooms and first brought her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, together with his future wife, Harriet Vane, when she was standing trial for murder in Strong Poison.

In A Certain Justice, P.D. James shows us how difficult it is to achieve true justice in any legal system. But she also demonstrates what many other great mystery writers also proved: Trying to bring it about can sure make one heck of a suspenseful story.

This is the third in an occasional series by Ron Miller, author of MYSTERY! A Celebration.

Return to Case Book Index

Home | TV Schedule | About the Series | Past Programs
Discussions | Detectives | Games | Tour the Set | Case Book | Credits | Mystery! Shop
WGBH | PBS Online | Feedback

Trouble reading this page? Click here.