And That’s Why You’ll Need the Best Lawyer in Town*

Unpopular CasesIn many countries’ legal systems, a person accused of a crime is considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That concept may be phrased differently in different systems, but the basic idea is that the prosecution has to prove that the defendant is guilty. Most people would tell you that that assumption is a good idea as it makes it less likely that an innocent person would be ‘railroaded’ into prison. It also helps ensure that everyone gets a fair trial.

It also means though that lawyers sometimes defend very unpopular clients and get involved in very difficult cases. As a wise attorney I know has said, the job of defending counsel is to defend, not to judge. But that job is a lot harder when a defendant has already been found guilty in the ‘court of public opinion.’ Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

We see a bit of this in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs. Hercule Poirot takes on a sixteen-year-old case of poisoning when Carla Lemarchant hires him to find out who killed her father Amyas Crale. Crale was a famous artist who was painting a portrait of his mistress Elsa Greer when he was murdered. At the time, his wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted. And there was plenty of evidence against her too. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to clear her name. One step that Poirot takes is to discuss the matter with Montague Depleach, defending counsel in this case. Depleach explains that there was a lot of sympathy for Caroline as her husband had been unfaithful to her. But even he admits that he’s always thought she was guilty. And so, as it turns out, has everyone else. Depleach is a skilled attorney with a good reputation, but that wasn’t enough to make people question their assumptions about Caroline Crale. You could say he was fighting a proverbial uphill battle against the presumption of her guilt.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet for writing. He takes a guesthouse on the property of town leaders John F. and Hermione ‘Hermy’ Wright. That’s how he gets involved in their family drama. The Wrights’ youngest daughter Nora was engaged to Jim Haight when he jilted her, leaving town with no explanation. Now he’s back and against everyone’s wishes, he and Nora resume their relationship and marry. Then, Nora becomes mysteriously ill. She recovers, but then becomes ill again. Then, Haight’s sister Rosemary, who’s come for an extended visit, is killed at a New Year’s Eve party when she has a poisoned drink intended for Nora. Now Haight is arrested for murder and the evidence is against him. So is the town. The Wrights are not just powerful, but popular. Eli Martin takes on the task of defending Haight, and it’s not easy. For one thing, there is convincing evidence against Haight. And that’s to say nothing of motive, as Haight stands to inherit if Nora dies. In the end only Nora’s sister Pat and Ellery Queen really believe that Haight could be innocent and it takes all of their efforts to prove that they’re right.

One of the best-known (and in my opinion, most powerful) examples of a lawyer taking on an unpopular client is in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Maycomb, Alabama is a small Southern town where racism is more or less an institution. Certainly it’s deeply ingrained in the culture. So when Mayella Ewell, who is White, accuses Tom Robinson, who is Black, of rape, the town is up in arms against him. In fact, he’s nearly lynched before his case can even be tried. Well-known lawyer Atticus Finch takes Robinson’s case and prepares to defend him, a decision that puts him and his children in some danger. But that doesn’t stop Finch from carrying through on his commitment to defend his client as vigourously as he can. That commitment drives Finch to find out the real truth about what happened.

John Grisham’s A Time to Kill deals with a very difficult case for attorney Jake Brigance. Ten-year-old Tonya Hailey, who is Black, is viciously attacked and raped by two White men Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard. The small town of Clanton, Mississippi is shocked at the incident and there is a great deal of sympathy for the girl and her family. But Tonya’s father Carl Lee Hailey is determined not to let Cobb and Willard escape justice. So he lies in wait for them and as they go into the courthouse, he murders them. Now the town is tragically divided and Brgance walks a proverbial minefield as he does his best to defend his client. And he’s up against a considerable force too, since there are some powerful people who want Hailey found guilty or worse. And after all, there’s little doubt that Hailey committed the killings.

In Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, we meet attorney Andy Woods. He has the thankless task of defending seventeen-year-old Darren Rowley, who’s been accused of murdering Tasmania Police Sergeant John White. Rowley isn’t exactly a ‘misunderstood, nice young boy.’ He’s been in trouble with the law numerous times, and he s both rude and cocky. But he is still entitled to counsel. Besides, he’s part-Aboriginal, and nobody much wants the legal and political repercussions of giving the appearance of racism. So Woods is reluctantly given access to his client, the necessary reports and so on. Still, he is not in the least popular with the police:


‘..when he announced his reason for being there [at the police station]…any pretence of civility disappeared quicker than you could say ‘Aboriginal Legal Service.’  Announcing that you were not only a criminal lawyer, but a criminal lawyer subcontracted to the ALS was tantamount to announcing that you were a paedophile with a rampant case of swine flue who’d recently returned from a baby-seal-bashing expedition around the Arctic Circle.’


As it turns out, not even Woods’ client is particularly helpful or grateful to him.

In T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton, the body of a mysterious young woman Sarena Gunasekera is found at the bottom of a cliff at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, She was stabbed before being thrown over the cliff, and blood and other evidence suggest that her murderer is Elton Spears. He’s a troubled young man with a history of mental illness. He isn’t exactly a likeable client and can’t do much to defend himself. But his solicitor Jim Harwood knows the young man and agrees to take the case. He briefs barrister Harry Douglas, who will defend the case in court, and the two go to work to try to find out what really happened to the victim. As the reader learns, it’s a very tricky case for Harwood…

One of the more difficult things attorneys do is defend clients who are unpopular, especially in heated and controversial cases. But it’s part of the job and it happens a lot. And I haven’t even mentioned novels where it’s the prosecuting attorney who has to take up an unpopular side…


On Another Note….


My sincere thanks to Rebecca Bradley, who invited me to stop by her blog today. I’m really honoured. Please come pay me a visit there and find out some background stuff about In a Word: Murder that you only thought you knew. And no, I’m hopeful I won’t need my lawyer… 😉

While you’re there, you’ll want to soak in Rebecca’s terrific blog. It’s a wonderful resource for crime fiction readers and writers. Oh, and Rebecca hosts a great online book club.

Thanks, Rebecca, for your support of this project!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Gordon’s Allentown Jail, made popular by The Seekers and The Kingston Trio.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Harper Lee, John Grisham, T.J. Cooke, Y.A. Erskine

28 responses to “And That’s Why You’ll Need the Best Lawyer in Town*

  1. Margot, two series in particular come to mind, where lawyers spend most of their time defending clients of differing degrees of unpopularity.

    The first is the classic Perry Mason series, by Erle Stanley Gardner. Mason believes strongly in that “innocent until proven guilty” adage, and it often leads him to mount defenses of unpopular and difficult clients, In the very first Perry Mason novel, “The Case of the Velvet Claws,” his client lies and cheats constantly and even tries to frame Mason himself for murder – yet Mason continues to defend that client.

    The second, from the U. K., is John Mortimer’s marvelous Rumpole (of the Bailey), who invariably finds himself defending unpopular clients (often to the disgust of his fellow barristers) because he believes – as doesn Perry Mason – that the client is not guilty until a jury says so. And both lawyers believe they must fight with all their vigor on their clients’ behalf.

    • Les – I’m glad you mentioned those two fine series. I almost mentioned them but decided to see what I could come up with in novels that aren’t ‘lawyer series,’ although of course, Grisham’s novels all basically feature lawyers, come to think of it. You’re right that for both Mason and Rumpole, the goal is to defend the client. That’s it. And I agree that The Case of the Velvet Claws is a great example of how Mason defends his client even when she becomes unpopular and everyone thinks she is guilty.

  2. For some reason I haven’t read many legal mysteries. Years ago, I did read a lot of Perry Mason novels. Of course, I have read To Kill a Mockingbird. And I want to read the rest of the books mentioned in this post, so sometime I will get to them.

    • Tracy – I know what you mean. There are so many, many books I want to read that I just haven’t gotten to yet. I think it can really add suspense to a story when you have a lawyer who has to defend an unpopular/unpleasant client or who has to deal with becoming unpopular for taking a case.

  3. Ah well, as a lapsed lawyer I really enjoyed this one Margot – Anatomy of a Murder is a great example of a lawyer defending a somewhat unsavoury character, something John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey frequently had to do too.

    • Sergio – Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for the reminder of Anatomy of a Murder. That was a gap that needed to be filled. And yes, Rumpole’s had to defend more than one of his share of not-really-likeable characters hasn’t he???

  4. Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution is a courtroom classic, and the lawyers are left far behind in the business of knowing what a client and his partner (and some other people) are or were up to….

  5. kathy d.

    Legal mysteries are among my favorites. I started out in the Middle Ages reading Perry Mason books and watching the TV episodes. Most of my family was glued to the TV. Perry Mason set me on a lifetime of reading crime fiction featuring interesting lawyers and their cases. If the courtroom dialogue crackles, that’s even better. It can make or break a book.
    A Time to Kill is one of John Grisham’s best. It’s not only about how a good lawyer defends his client, but it’s about racism in Mississippi.
    An as fyi, Grisham has a new book out entitled Sycamore Row, which features the same lawyer in the same town. The NYTBR gave it a rave, and this is one book I’ll get to read over the holidays, a real treat.
    Scott Turow has a new book out, too, Identical. His legal thrillers are excellent.
    On the question of defending a guilty client, for those who read global crime fiction, The Collini Case fits that bill. It also exposes little-known aspects of the German criminal code, which lets war criminals off the hook.
    This book makes one think. And I also want to recognize the late Maxine Clarke, whose review of this book sent me off to buy it to loan it out.
    Don’t want to veer too far off-topic, but there are many good legal mysteries. Attorneys or former attorneys seem to write the best ones.

    • Kathy – You make several good points here. Legal mysteries, when they’re well-written, can be so suspenseful and compelling. And I think it adds a layer of that suspense when the client is unpopular or when the lawyer simply doesn’t like the client. There are a lot of good ‘uns out there, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned some of them. The Perry Mason cases were I think a lot of people’s first introduction to crime fictioin and they way in which Mason defends his clients makes them still worth a read.
      And thanks for mentioning both the new Grisham and the new Turow. Both authors are extremely talented and write engrossing mysteries. Oh, and thanks for the mention of The Collini Case. Maxine recommended that one to me, too…
      As to attorneys and former attorneys writing the best legal mysteries goes, that’s a really interesting point. I’d have to really think about that one…

  6. There was a time, Margot, when I read a lot of Perry Mason but after that I have not really been into legal thrillers. But one that I enjoyed immensely is William Diehl’s PRIMAL FEAR.

    • Neeru – Thanks for recommending Primal Fear. It’s a really strong example of an attorney who really has a hard road ahead of him with his case. And as to Perry Mason, I think it’s interesting how we read certain books avidly, but then don’t after a while.

  7. I have been meaning to read the Marcia Clark books. I am sure she has an interesting perspective coming off of such a high profile case.

  8. As soon as I read your first paragraphs, I thought of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ – completely agree it’s one of the most powerful examples of this type of book. And glad to see so many people mention Rumpole – not only are the books so enjoyable, but I loved the old TV series with Leo McKern.

    • FictionFan – That is a great series isn’t it? McKern did a fine job, and the writing was terrific in my opinion. And (again, my opinion) I don’t think it’d be possible to talk about lawyers in modern fiction without mentioning To Kill a Mockingbird. Besides, it’s a triumph of a novel.

  9. Margot: Thanks for the kind words and link to my blog. I was at the College of Law in Saskatoon yesterday talking at a round table about the practice of law in rural Saskatchewan and then to students individually. It has not been easy to persuade law school graduates to come to rural Saskatchewan. I did not look at the blog today until this evening.

    You have good examples of representing the unpopular client. I have often said people want harsh punishments for someone who is not related to them, lives at least 300 km away and is preferably neither of their sex nor of their race.

    • Bill – It’s my pleasure to mention you and your great blog. Your comments about getting attorneys to come to rural Saskatchewan reminds me of the many programs there are to get newly credentialed teachers to move to rural areas. It is a challenge, in part because rural districts simply cannot afford to pay teachers what wealthy suburban districts can. It’s an ongoing issue.
      I think you’re right about the kind of punishments people want, too, when the guilty party is not ‘one of them.’ It’s quite different isn’t it when the defendant is someone who goes to the same church, whose kids go to the same school, etc…

  10. Col

    Another gap in my reading. Note to self – a few lrgal mysteries in 2014!

  11. So glad you mentioned “To Kill A Mockingbird.” One of my all time favourite books. Powerful and true.

  12. Margot – Moira beat me to the punch, but I’ve just got to mention AC’s Witness for the Prosecution, with the crusty lawyer and appealing defendant who, well, may or may not be guilty. Confession: I liked the movie version quite a bit better than Dame Agatha’s short story.

  13. I know lawyers get a bad press but some of the nicest people I know are also lawyers. I my experience they rarely talk shop away from court. Well, with one or two exceptions now I come to think of it.

    • Sarah – I totally agree. I know some fine, fine people who are lawyers. They get bad press, but as you’ve found, a lot of them are good people. And as far as ‘talking shop’ goes, I’ve been guilty of that myself.

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