'CORE' Best Lists
- Top 25 Best Mystery Books
- The Top 100 Mystery Books
- Best Mystery Audiobooks
- Best Mystery Books of Fall 2018
- Best Mystery Books of 2017
- Best Mystery Books of 2016
- Best Mystery Books of 2015
- Best Mystery Series
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'ERA' Best Lists
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- Best Legal Mystery Books
- Best Police Procedural Books
- Best Mystery Thriller Books
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'AUDIENCE' Best Lists
- Best Mystery Books for Women
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- Best Young Adult Mystery Books
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The Legal Mystery Genre
What is a Legal Mystery?
The legal subgenre is a thriving category after all these years. Even though it started nearly a century ago, people still want to read about how justice prevails in a court of law. The early novels of Erle Stanley Gardner writing about Perry Mason set the bar for the subgenre. The lawyer is a fierce advocate for his client, who has to be innocent. The trial comes around and the lawyer sets up a dramatic last-minute reveal of the true killer while the killer or an accomplice is on the stand.
The legal subgenre has changed as the system has changed. It's now not only the defense attorneys who get written about, but public defenders, prosecuting attorneys, judges, juries, and sometimes even defendants. Each brings a unique insight into how the legal system works.
Legal Mystery Characteristics
- Level of Characterization
Characterization is a primary component of these novels. The characters drive the story here. The lawyer must be shown to be of a certain temperament. The defendant must be shown in sufficient detail for the reader to make up his/her mind if the client is guilty. Without characterization, the reader might as well read a court transcript.
- Level of Plot
The mystery must be complicated. If the case was open-and-shut, then the defendant would have pled out and be doing time already. Instead, the case is going to trial, which only a small percent of criminal cases do. So the plot has to give the defendant sufficient wiggle room for there to possibly be reasonable doubt.
- Level of Mystery
Mystery is a key element. There has to be some question as to whether the defendant is guilty or just the victim of the system which has let him down. The puzzle is important because the police may have missed clues or been so sure of the perp that they only looked for clues which pointed to the defendant's guilt.
- Level of Suspense
The suspense is high, because the reader doesn't know what the jury will say. There's a specific time element, the length of the trial, for the lawyers to learn about any new evidence and introduce it into court. Once the defendant has been found guilty, the suspense is over.
- Level of Thriller
There can be some elements of the thriller in the book. Some trials have national implication or international issues at stake. If the likely killer is a high-ranking government official or a member of another country's ruling family, then the world can be at stake.
- Level of Strangeness
There can definitely be an element of strangeness involved. The old Perry Mason cases had odd sounding clues, such as the lame canary or the drowning duck. The clues to the crime or the defendant can be very strange at times.
- Level of Violence
Given that the crime is typically murder, the level of violence can be as much as the author wants it to be. The violence can be shown either by the photos of the crime scene, or the autopsy, or even a depiction of the crime itself. Anything is possible.
- Level of Action
There's some action, but this is a mainly a game of the minds, two sides fighting over the guilt or innocent of the man in the dock. Unless there are scenes of investigation, then most of the action takes place in a courtroom or the law offices.
- Degree of Thriller, Suspense, Crime, or Mystery in this the Legal Mystery Subgenre
The legal subgenre is mostly a mystery at heart. There's a crime that the police think they have solved, but the reader has some doubts. The mystery becomes whether or not the lawyer can find out the truth before the jury makes up its mind. There is a strong element of suspense, because the story ends with the jury's verdict, so the lawyer must act fast or lose the case. The time element ratchets up the suspense in the story. There can be thriller elements depending on whom is being tried, but the defendant can also be a regular member of society.
Related MYSTERY Subgenres
Police Procedural. This is the law to the order in Law & Order. The police get the criminal to the courts by their investigations.
Hard Boiled. Many of the lawyers are hard-drinking, divorced Casanovas who are wise guys outside of the courtroom.
Legal Mystery isn't for you IF...
If you don't care for courts, lawyers and judges, if you don't like last minute reveals on the stand, if you don't care about the maneuvers to get a person free.
- 1 The Case of the Howling Dog
By Erle Stanley Gardner. One of the earliest writers in the subgenre and still one of the best.
- 2 Presumed Innocent
By Scott Turow. Turow, a lawyer himself, wrote a great thriller about the workings of a murder trial.
- 3 A Time of Kill
By John Grisham. The story of an African American's trial in the deep South.
- 4 Anatomy of a Murder
By Robert Travers. Great story of a murder trial and the aftermath from the 1950s.
- 5 Legal Tender
By Lisa Scottoline. These books are stories of women trapped in the legal system. Well done.
- 6 To Kill A Mockingbird
By Harper Lee. Not technically a thriller, but still one of the best trial scenes ever.
- 7 Witness for the Prosecution
By Agatha Christie. Just a novelette, but still one of the best known legal thrillers by the Queen of Crime.
- 8 Lethal Legacy
By Linda Fairstein. The book is from the DA's perspective, but a legal thriller nonetheless.
- 9 Primary Justice
By William Bernhardt. The moral awakening of a lawyer in a large, prestigious firm.