Books

FROM COURT TO BOOKSTORE

Legal fiction has taken on a whole new meaning

LEAH BOWNESS August 2 2004
Books

FROM COURT TO BOOKSTORE

Legal fiction has taken on a whole new meaning

LEAH BOWNESS August 2 2004

FROM COURT TO BOOKSTORE

Books

LEAH BOWNESS

Legal fiction has taken on a whole new meaning

LAWYERS HAVE always had a reputation— for good or ill—as storytellers, people who can spin a tale well enough to move a jury. It’s practically a job description. And in the past 15 years, it’s become a lucrative sideline for some. Exceedingly rich U.S. authors with LL.B.s in their back pockets, like thriller writer John Grisham, hold a disproportionate share of the crime-fiction racks in bookstores. William Deverell, Canada’s most successful lawyer-turned-author, has a substantial following abroad and at home. Some members of the legal profession have hit the jackpot even before starting practice. Amanda Brown, author of Legally Blonde, was daydreaming in her torts class at Stanford when she began parodying her law school experiences in an e-book-and parlayed that into a movie that earned $30 million in its first week (there was also a sequel, and a musical is in development).

Fellow legalists have been quick to notice, flocking to such workshops as Seak Inc.’s upcoming “Legal Fiction Writing for Lawyers” seminar in Cape Cod, Mass., or buying Their Word Is Law: Bestselling LawyerNovelists Talk About Their Craft by Stephen

M. Murphy. So it’s not surprising that Toronto lawyer Jeffrey Miller is ready to join their ranks, even if his just-released first novel, Murder at Osgoode Hall (ECW Press), is not quite like the American blockbusters.

For one thing, his lead character is a cat, Amicus Q.C. (for Questing Cat, not Queen’s Counsel), who discovers the corpse of an antiestablishment bencher among confidential records in Toronto’s landmark legal fortress. Crime-solving felines are not unheard of in the genre, but 53-year-old Miller has avoided being what he calls “too cutesy-pie” with his, a measure of restraint that has helped make his novel as literate as it is funny. Miller trusts that other Ontario lawyers will see the humour in his caper story. Perhaps not, though: “There’s always a contingent that take themselves very seriously, and don’t take kindly to your popping their balloons.”

Murder at Osgoode Hall; ECW Press; $19.95

Or maybe they’re just

irritated by their portrayal. In 1999 Grisham, who has well over 100 million books in printmany of them featuring corrupt, even homicidal, lawyers—delivered a lecture at the University of Mississippi law school entitled “Abusing the Law for Fun and Profit.” He told his 450 listeners the tide was “sort of a joke,” but many thought it sort of wasn’t.

Bestselling books produced by such attorneys gleefully pummel the profession. Killer Smile, the 11th novel from Lisa Scottoline, known as the “female Grisham,” opens with a call from “a man who wanted to sue the Philadelphia Police Department, the United States Congress, and a local cantaloupe. He had reached one of the few lawyers in the city who wouldn’t sue fruit.”

Miller’s style is more to tweak the majesty of the law than to launch a full-bore attack. The writer, a columnist for The Lawyers Weekly since 1983 and the author of several non-fiction books, doesn’t expect his novel to change his life much, even if readers warm to Amicus. But neither does he foresee a return to lawyering, which he abandoned in 1998. With few exceptions—Scott Turow is the most prominent bestselling author with one foot still firmly in legal practice—those who manage to make the leap to publication rarely go back to the courtroom.

Miller hated practising law, despite his love for “the actual narrative of it and its intellectual aspects.” And he simply could not accept the advice of his property law professor, who told him, “You are not supposed to read cases like they are mystery stories, to find out how they come out in the end.” Reallife law, as Miller and his many predecessors have found out, just doesn’t tie up loose ends as neatly as the fictional variety. fil