The Twelve Best Novels with Courtroom Scenes
In the long history of literature, courtroom scenes bring about the most memorable and dramatic moments. It’s no wonder authors are drawn to them, whether the book is a legal thriller or not: there is something inherently thrilling about the life-or-death, win-or-lose outcome of a courtroom battle. Consequences for bad behaviour, an opportunity to behave heroically, a chance to turn a plot around and send it rocketing in a different direction: the courtroom is a gift to any writer.
In my new novel, The Killing Kind, the heroine is a young lawyer named Ingrid Lewis. She uses her time in court to establish herself as a force to be reckoned with, but the consequences for her are far beyond anything she anticipates. It’s a thriller with a legal setting rather than a legal thriller but the courtroom scenes are key to the plot. I’m married to a lawyer who does the same job as Ingrid so I was able to draw on his personal experience of courtroom moments – good and bad – to make it feel believable.
This list of twelve very different books includes my favourite courtroom moments.
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
It is a truth universally acknowledged that whatever writers do, Dickens did it first. A Tale of Two Cities is remembered for its incredible opening paragraph (‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’) and its setting during the French Revolution, but the trials of Charles Darnay are at the heart of the action. First accused of treason, his defence hinges on the coincidence of the barrister Sydney Carton resembling him so strongly. Later in the plot this will prove to have great significance, after a trial that ends with a sentence of death and a date with the guillotine. Dickens was always drawn to moments of high drama and A Tale of Two Cities makes full use of the courtroom setting.
- Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie
Thanks to some unforgettable dramatizations, this is one of Agatha Christie’s most familiar short stories. It features a trial where Leonard Vole is accused of murdering the older woman who left him her fortune. His wife appears as a witness for the prosecution, but is she really telling the truth? Christie changed the ending when she adapted it for the stage, which proves that even crime-writing idols worry about their plots.
- Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
With one of the finest plots of the Golden Age in crime fiction, Strong Poison begins in a courtroom. A young woman, Harriet Vane, is on trial for murdering her lover. It’s a scandalous trial but she had a motive, she had the means (arsenic, procured as research for a novel) and she had the opportunity. If convicted, she will hang. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in the public gallery, and he thinks she is innocent. With a scant month to find the evidence to save her life, Wimsey embarks on a thrilling hunt for the truth. The courtroom scenes are heavy with tension and as exciting as a car chase.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Name a literary lawyer. Most of us will think immediately of Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird who does his job without fear and with compassion. The book is set in a specific historical moment in 1930s Alabama but like all great works of literature it continues to speak to us and our contemporary world. During a rape trial it is Atticus Finch’s job to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman. While Atticus Finch has become an example of an ethical and strongly moral lawyer, justice is in short supply for Tom. A work of great genius, To Kill A Mockingbird occupies a special place in literature.
- Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
If you ask a group of crime writers for their favourite thrillers Presumed Innocent is likely to turn up on the list. Rusty Sabich is used to prosecuting murders, but he finds himself on trial when his lover is found dead. There’s a particular thrill to seeing the court case unfold from the perspective of the accused – a man who knows exactly what is happening and what awaits him if he is found guilty. The plot twists are justly famous; if you start reading it be prepared to stay up all night until it’s finished.
- A Time to Kill by John Grisham
John Grisham occupies a special place in crime-writing history for breathing new life into the legal thriller. The enormous success of The Firm led to the rediscovery of this, his first book, written in 1989. Unlike many of the other books in this list, the plot hinges on a moral question explored through legal argument: is there a way to find a man not guilty of murder – although he did it – because the victims deserved to die? The legal issues are expertly and thrillingly explored, turning what could be dry discussions into high drama. Like To Kill a Mockingbird it explores issues of racial bias. It’s a striking debut that deserved, and found, a wide readership.
- The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
This 2005 novel introduces Mickey Haller, half-brother to Connelly’s usual police officer hero Harry Bosch. As a criminal defence lawyer, Haller is usually on the other side, working for drug dealers and gangsters. The Lincoln Lawyer is a cat-and-mouse game between Haller and his client, accused of assault and attempted murder, as Haller realises an innocent man is locked up for the client’s actions. Brilliantly clever and completely thrilling, this was an exciting new direction for Connelly, one of the greats of crime fiction.
- Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh
Irish author and lawyer Steve Cavanagh sets his legal thrillers in the US with an unforgettable main character, Eddie Flynn. This break-through novel has the best hook: what if the killer isn’t on trial? What if they’re on the jury instead? A page-turner, Thirteen more than delivers on its promise.
- Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Never one to shy away from a big issue, with Nineteen Minutes Picoult explores the aftermath of a school shooting. Nine students and one teacher die as a bullied student, Peter Houghton, experiences a psychotic break after public humiliation. Picoult is brilliant at making us care about all of the characters, exploring what might drive a teenager to commit such a dreadful crime. As the trial takes place, the mother of a fellow student – herself a judge – begins to realise that the full story hasn’t yet been told.
- Pleasantville by Attica Locke
This brilliant thriller blends legal issues with political ones and a very fine murder mystery. It’s set in 1996, in Houston, as a mayoral election campaign heats up. A young campaigner disappears and the African-American mayoral candidate’s nephew is accused of her murder. Lawyer Jay Porter returns (after his first appearance in Black Water Rising) to defend in his first ever murder trial and to find out what really happened – and why. The courtroom scenes are key to unravelling the complex, brilliant plot that draws in politics, a corporate pollution suit, historic real estate decisions and two previous unsolved murders.
- Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Apple Tree Yard begins with a bang, if you’ll pardon the pun: instant attraction between Dr Yvonne Carmichael, a scientist in her fifties, and a man she has never met before. They begin a torrid, risky affair but when Yvonne is raped she turns to her lover for help – help that results in a trial for murder. We know that Yvonne is in the dock from a very early stage in the book, but it is only as the trial progresses and Yvonne reflects on what brought her there, revealing piece after piece of important information, that we can understand what really happened.
- Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Like Bonfire of the Vanities, Anatomy of a Scandal features an apparently happy, powerful man accused of a serious crime. Set in London, it features James, a junior minister in government and the prime minister’s best friend, his wife Sophie, and Kate, the lawyer who is hired to prosecute him on a charge of rape. Sophie can’t believe James would do anything so terrible (or can she?), Kate is motivated by professional zeal (or is there something else going on here?) and James is encountering, for more or less the first time, a situation that he can’t resolve through privilege. The court case is expertly described and it’s genuinely thrilling to see whether the truth will come out at last.
Finally, I want to mention two more that aren’t yet available in the US but worth looking out for: Imran Mahmood’s You Don’t Know Me and Saima Mir’s The Khan. You Don’t Know Me features a young black man on trial for murder, who fires his lawyer and speaks to the jury himself. He goes through the eight elements of evidence against him telling his version of the truth. An incredibly accomplished debut by a real-life barrister, You Don’t Know Me is being adapted for television by the BBC and will be on Netflix. The Khan centres on Jia Khan, a successful and intimidating lawyer who leads a life of luxury and conducts devastating cross-examinations. When her father is murdered, she returns to take his place at the head of a Pakistani organised crime family that runs a city in the north of England. Absolutely compelling, it combines a Godfather-like plot with an extraordinary insight into life in the Pakistani community.
Jane Casey has written eleven crime novels for adults and three for teenagers. A former editor, she is married to a criminal barrister who ensures her writing is realistic and as accurate as possible.
This authenticity has made her novels international bestsellers and critical successes. The Maeve Kerrigan series has been nominated for many awards: in 2015 Jane won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Stranger You Know and Irish Crime Novel of the Year for After the Fire. In 2019, Cruel Acts was chosen as Irish Crime Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It was a Sunday Times bestseller. Born in Dublin, Jane now lives in southwest London with her husband and two children. The Killing Kind is available now.