Every criminal trial is about the past. When individuals stand before judge and jury, they are on trial not only for a crime they may or may not have committed; they are also being held to account for the way they have led their entire lives, for their past.
My novel The Verdict is about a crime, and it’s also about a ruined friendship. The protagonists, Terry Flynt and Vernon James, were close childhood friends who had a bitter falling-out in early adulthood. Vernon went on to become a multimillionaire, while Terry’s life spiraled to rock bottom and a few leagues beyond. Terry blames Vernon for his misfortune and nurtures a poisonous hatred toward him for almost twenty years as he goes about living a fraction of the life he might otherwise have led. But when Vernon is arrested for murder and Terry, now working in the lower rungs of a high-powered law firm, finds himself on his former friend’s defense team, he’s faced with a dilemma. Does he take revenge on Vernon by doing nothing to help him, or does he do his job and fight to keep him from going to prison?
In writing the court scenes for The Verdict, I reread the summation at the end of the trial in John Grisham’s A Time to Kill daily. Yes, every day. It’s both an exceptionally powerful piece of dramatic writing, and one of the best discourses on the legacy of racism in America this side of James Baldwin.
Every legal thriller writer today owes a debt and a bow to John Grisham. He is a byword for a genre he all but defines. Quite why he isn’t feted as the great American writer he is remains one of life’s minor mysteries. He turns complex legal process into gripping, page-turning narrative. As anyone who has ever sat through an entire trial, with its arcane language and tortuous syntax, will know, that’s no mean feat.
Like Graham Greene, who famously divided his oeuvre into “entertainments” and “novels,” Grisham’s fiction falls into two categories. There is Manichaean Grisham, where the characters are fundamentally good or bad (A Time to Kill, The Firm, The Chamber). And then there’s noir Grisham, where people are both good and bad, or bad with reasonable intentions.
The noir books are my favorites, the ones I cross the road to buy the day they’re published. In these Grisham writes “against type” and has a ball doing it. Of these books, The Brethren and The Racketeer are the ones I lob at the scoffers and doubters. The Brethren is one of the funniest, sourest satires of American presidential politics this side of Primary Colors. The Racketeer rivals Elmore Leonard or Charles Willeford at his most raucous and amoral.
Equally good is Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. The novel’s morally dubious lawyer, Mickey Haller, is a superbly drawn character: part snake, part charmer, living on his wits in a cutthroat business and always in danger of getting in his own way.
I’m big on environment as reflection of character. It’s becoming my schtick, I suppose. My first book, Mr Clarinet, featured a ruined private detective looking for a missing child in a ruined landscape, Haiti in the mid-1990s. The Verdict is very much rooted in and shaped by its setting, 21st-century London, with its ever-widening socioeconomic divide, symbolized by glittering (and, frankly, ugly) new glass towers and grim low-rises that date back to the 1950s. No prizes for guessing where Terry Flynt lives.
In prepping The Verdict, I reread two literary masterpieces, which, although not legal thrillers, are framed by legal process and steeped in their respective environments. The first was Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. I first read it when it was published in 1987 and marveled at the way Wolfe had brought New York to life on the page, and, of course, the unforgettable court scenes, where everyone has an agenda beyond the case at hand.
I also revisited Charles Dickens’s Bleak House for the third time. No one, except Peter Ackroyd, will ever equal Dickens when it comes to writing about London. That you can still walk parts of his city and see it as he did, virtually unchanged, is one of the reasons I’ll probably never leave the place. Bleak House also has, as its most memorable character, Mr. Tulkinghorn, a satanic lawyer.
Ultimately, the biggest inspiration for The Verdict was not books but personal experience. I worked as a legal clerk for two years before becoming a published writer. In that time, I worked murder trials and got to witness the legal endgame from start to finish. Books are no substitute for life.