Along with great lawyer movies the world has known are great lawyer novels, some of which became the basis for later film adaptations. As with great lawyer movies, the Journal of the American Bar Association has compiled a list of the 25 Greatest Law Novels (at least up through 2013, when the list was made by a panel of lawyers and scholars).
We will share with you the top 15 titles from that list, along with our own observations. Just remember: This isn’t an open-and-shut case, but only an opinion. You may have your own verdict.
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. This classic legal drama involved an African American man unjustly accused of raping a white woman in the Depression-era South. Gregory Peck will forever be known for playing his heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, in the 1962 film version. Courage in the face of bigotry may never be shown as vividly as it is in Lee’s great legal story.
- Crime and Punishment (1866), by Fyodor Dostoevsky. After a young Russian man coldly kills a pawnbroker, his indifference to his guilt turns into wrenching shame and moral anguish. He finds that injustice cannot be justified by social context, rationalizations or expedience.
- Bleak House (1852), by Charles Dickens. A long-running estate case sparked by conflicting wills takes cynical precedence over a murder case involving the same house in this story of greed and indifference to true justice. A classic Dickens satire, it attacks the English judicial system of the time with wry yet fierce truth.
- The Trial (1925), by Franz Kafka. This fatalistic tale concerned a bank assessor accused of a vague, unspecified crime and trapped by bureaucratic brittleness and faceless authority. Though it concerns a lengthy legal process, the book is driven more by philosophy than legalese.
- Les Miserables (1862), by Victor Hugo. This classic story of a peasant condemned to prison for taking a loaf of bread gave a scalding account of French society at the time and later became a renowned Broadway musical which was adapted to the big screen. Not just one of the great legal novels, but a great novel, period.
- Billy Budd (1924), by Herman Melville. The title character is a popular, stout sailor who runs afoul of his ship’s master-at-arms, whom he strikes after being accused of mutiny, inadvertently killing the man. Though well loved by the captain and crew, Billy faces the harsh truth that the rule of law must prevail in his trial at high sea.
- Presumed Innocent (1987), by Scott Turow. This legal thriller involves a prosecutor accused of killing a female colleague who also was his mistress. Entwining politics with justice, the story of a man framed for murder is a suspenseful masterpiece with a wrenching payoff at the end.
- The Scarlet Letter (1850), by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in mid-1600s in Puritanical Massachusetts, this classic novel concerns a woman disgraced by an adulterous affair when it’s learned that her presumed dead husband is still alive. Forced to wear a scarlet “A” for her crime, she suffers greatly in the era and the place of the hysterical Salem witch trials.
- The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), by Tom Wolfe. A high-flying bond trader faces ruin when his mistress causes a hit-and-run crash in the Bronx, NY. Awash in 1980s culture, the novel is rife with characters marked by bald ambition, social-class strictures, racism and greed.
- An American Tragedy (1935), by Theodore Dreiser. A tale of stark fatalism, this lengthy, classic tragedy centers on a grasping young man of modest means who aspires to wealth and is accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend so he instead could romance a wealthy woman. Though innocent of the deed but not of the motive, he faces a death sentence in a rigorous trial.
- The Paper Chase (1971), by John Jay Osborn. Quickly made into a movie, this law school drama concerns a war of wills between a law student and his professor, Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. It also involved the Socratic method, a form of systematic arguing that leads to the elimination of hypotheses. Making his film debut at age 70, acting teacher John Houseman won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for the 1972 film.
- Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (1853), by Herman Melville. Lawyers can relate to this short novel about a man who is hired by a lawyer to do paperwork as a clerk and winds up in prison after deciding not to work by proclaiming “I would prefer not to.” (A “scrivener” copies legal documents by hand.)
- Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright. This fact-based novel concerns Bigger Thomas, an impoverished African American man in Chicago in the 1930s for whom circumstances lead to a trial for double homicide. The story concerns a societal inevitability for Thomas’ crime and conviction.
- The Stranger (1942), by Albert Camus. (Also known as The Outsider.) Widely considered an absurdist yarn, this nonetheless involves a serious matter: a man on trial for murdering an Arab man in French Algeria. Its two parts provide the accused man’s first-person views, both before and after the murder.
- A Tale of Two Cities (1859), by Charles Dickens. Set in Paris and London around the time of the French Revolution, this massive novel concerned atrocities inflicted by French aristocrats on the peasantry before the revolution, and similarly atrocious retribution afterward. Its central character is lawyer Sydney Carton, who defends a man accused of treason named Charles Darnay. One of the best-selling novels in history.