When the law doesn’t work…work the law.
That doesn’t being illegal. Any credible lawyer knows that breaking the law can mean disbarment at the very least. Rather, it means using the law to do some good, rather than hiding blindly behind one or another law. Solomon does just that on a regular basis. He’s gotten himself in trouble more than once by seeing the law as a living, breathing entity, rather than something immutable. He’s not at all conventional, and he can be brash and even a little conceited. But he has an interesting, compassionate view about what the law is supposed to do. Throughout the series, we see how Solomon looks at different situations, and tries to make the law work for them, rather than fit them into what the law, strictly speaking, says.
He’s not the only crime-fictional protagonist who does this. And it’s interesting to see how sleuths are at the same time both respectful of what law or policy says (i.e. not stereotypical mavericks) and flexible about it all. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of those characters. On the one hand, as he says himself, he does not approve of murder. And fans know that he has no compunction about having a murderer arrested. At the same time, he is aware of the humanity, if that’s the way to say it, involved in the cases he investigates. And, in more than one story (no titles – I don’t want to give away spoilers), he allows for the right thing to be done, rather than for the strictest interpretation of the law.
There’s an interesting case of ‘working the law’ in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, we are introduced to Mason Hunt, who is the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County, Virginia. He’s had the personal blow of being widowed, but he’s doing well, and he has a close bond with his daughter, Grace. Then, the past comes back to haunt him. Years earlier, Hunt and his brother, Gates, were involved in an argument with Gates’ romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. Later that night, the Hunt brothers encountered Thompson again, the argument was rekindled, and before anyone really knew it, Gates shot Thompson. Out of a sense of filial loyalty, Mason helped his brother get rid of the evidence of the murder, and both men got on with their lives. Now, Gates is in prison on a cocaine trafficking charge, and he wants his brother to get him out. Mason refuses, for a lot of good reasons, and Gates threatens to implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff, and soon, he’s indicted on a murder charge. Now, Mason and Assistant Prosecutor Custis Norman will have to think of an approach to keeping Gates in prison and clearing Mason’s name. It won’t be easy, because Mason has, after all, illegally hidden evidence. But the two hit on a strategy that just might work…
Gianrico Carofiglio’s Guido Guerrieri finds ways to work the law in Involuntary Witness. In that novel, Guerrieri, who lives and works in Bari, is asked to take on a very difficult legal case. It seems that a Senegalese immigrant named Abdou Thiam has been arrested for abducting and murdering nine-year-old Francesco Rubino. There’s plenty of evidence against him, too. But his partner, Abajaje Deheva, says that he’s not guilty. And she hires Guerrieri to defend Thiam. At first, Thiam doesn’t think he has much chance, especially being a Senegalese in an Italian court. But Guerrieri soon comes to believe that his client is innocent. Now, he’s going to have to come up with a strategy that works the law so that he can clear Thiam’s name.
So does attorney Casper Leinen in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case/Der Fall Collini. In that novel, we are introduced to Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany. For years, he’s lived and worked quietly in Böblingen. Then, unexpectedly, he travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he goes to one of the suites and shoots Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s taken immediately into custody, where he does nothing to defend himself. German law requires that he be represented by counsel; and, as it happens, Leinen is on standby duty for legal aid when Collini is arrested. So, he goes to meet with his new client. Soon enough, he finds out that this is going to be a very difficult case. Collini admits right away that he killed Meyer but doesn’t say why. The examining magistrate fully expects Leinen to simply go through the motions to ensure that his client is treated fairly. And Collini is willing to take whatever punishment he gets from the German court system. Leinen, though, wants to really defend his client. And he’s not afraid to admit he wants to win in court. So, he puts all of his effort into this case. And he finds that there’s more to this murder than it seems on the surface. He’s going to have to work the law if he’s going to free his client.
And it’s not just attorneys who learn the value of occasionally working the law. Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe has learned it, too. For instance, in The Kalahari Typing School For Men, she’s been hired by a client who wants to make amends with a former landlord from whom he stole a radio. Mma Ramotswe agrees to try to find the family. The landlord has died, but his widow is still alive. So, Mma Ramotswe goes to the government pension office. Her thought is to try to get the widow’s address, so she can ask the woman if she’ll meet with Mma Ramotswe’s client. Unfortunately, the office clerk is smug and self-important, and refuses to give out any information. He says the rules forbid giving out any information. Here’s what happens next:
‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’’
In this case, Mma Ramotswe uses the clerk’s own rules against him for what she sees as the greater good.
And that’s the thing about working the law. It doesn’t mean breaking the law. Rather, it means looking at the law as part of a larger picture, so that the most good is done.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Randy Darnell Jackson and Homer Banks’ Can’t You Find Another Way (of Doing It).