Tag Archives: lawyers

Summer Reading: Legal Fiction

TopTenList

I made a rash promise earlier this week during the Dean’s Welcome Webcast to post a top ten list of legal fiction by way of a bit of suggested summer reading. I’m not exactly going to make good on that promise here as I’m highly resistant to the “top ten” part of the proposition. To truly come up with a top ten, I’d have to have an exhaustive knowledge of the field and, while I read a lot, I certainly haven’t read everything. Plenty of worthy books are bound to be left off my list simply because I haven’t yet read them. Further, I’m mindful that this is an inherently subjective exercise. The books I choose to highlight are those that appeal to my particular literary tastes and legal interests, not necessarily the best books by any objective criteria. So consider this list not a top ten, but simply a preliminary reading list of legal fiction that I found entertaining, insightful, or challenging (in the best cases, all three). Here they are, in order of publication, with (I hope) enough detail to pique your interest without giving too much away:

Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens: More than a century and a half after its initial publication, this novel centering on the seemingly interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is still distressingly relevant on issues related to legal ethics, legal obfuscation, and justice delayed as justice denied. It also contains some of the most memorable and entertaining lawyer characters in literature including the sinister Mr. Tulkinghorn, the odious Mr. Vholes, and (possibly my favourite) young Mr. Guppy who is utterly enamoured with the language of the law. It’s nearly a thousand pages long, but when I reached the end, I wished there was more of it. (Incidentally, if you like to listen rather than read, there’s a wonderful audio version available narrated by Robert Whitfield.)

The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka: Kafka stands alongside Shakespeare, Dickens, and Orwell as one of the authors most frequently referenced in legal decisions. And when judges or lawyers refer to proceedings or outcomes as Kafkaesque, they are likely thinking of The Trial, a novel in which the main character, Josef K., finds himself caught up in the nightmare of a trial on charges which are never specified via processes that he doesn’t understand.

Strong Poison (1930) by Dorothy Sayers: This is the installment in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series in which Harriet Vane, one of my favourite characters in crime fiction, is introduced. Bohemian author Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, and Wimsey must solve the mystery of who killed him in order to prove her innocent and save her from the gallows.

Tragedy at Law (1942) by Cyril Hare: Hare wrote a series of mystery novels set in the legal world based on his own experiences as an English barrister and judge. In this one, regarded by many as his best, High Court judge Mr. Justice Barber first receives threatening letters, then is subjected to an attempt on his life while moving from town to town to preside over cases in the southern English circuit. Barrister and amateur detective Francis Pettigrew sets out to discover who wants Barber dead before that person succeeds in the endeavour.

Tales of Manhattan (1967) by Louis Auchincloss: Auchincloss was an extraordinarily prolific writer as well as a practicing lawyer for seven decades, beginning in the 1940s until his death in 2010. In his fiction he depicted the world of New York high society and the Wall Street lawyers and bankers who served its interests. Gore Vidal wrote of him: “Of all our novelists, Auchincloss is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs.” Tales of Manhattan includes a suite of stories which depicts a fictional New York law firm from multiple perspectives. These stories are very much of their time and place and thereby illuminate a particular historical moment in U.S. society and legal practice. But they also explore, as do many of Auchincloss’s works, tensions between legal ambition and creative aspirations in a way that may resonate for the would-be lawyer-writers among you.

The Legal Fiction of Lowell B. Komie (2005): This book unites Komie’s many law-themed stories that were originally dispersed throughout earlier collections published between 1983 and 1999. Like Auchincloss, Komie is at once an acclaimed fiction writer and a practicing attorney but his territory is Chicago and the legal world that he depicts in these stories is that of the 1970s and 80s. Consequently, the cast of law students, lawyers, and judges that he depicts is much more diverse. Legal practice has changed considerably in the intervening years, but many of the personal and professional conflicts that Komie’s characters face will still seem familiar to today’s lawyers and law students.

Alias Grace (1996) by Margaret Atwood: This Giller prize winner is my favourite of Margaret Atwood’s books. It’s a historical novel that is based on a notorious 19th century Canadian case in which a maid was convicted of the brutal murders of her employer and his housekeeper. Atwood’s rendition of the story takes the reader into the mind of the convicted murderer, now serving out a life sentence and claiming to have no memory of the crime. It also explores the question of her innocence or guilt through the eyes of a fictional doctor who is researching her case.

George & Rue (2005) by George Elliot Clarke: This novel is based on the story of two African Canadian brothers who were convicted of and executed for the murder of a taxi driver in the course of a robbery in New Brunswick in 1949. Clarke became intrigued by the story upon learning that he was related to the brothers and set out to imagine, through innovative use of the historical record, what led up to the commission of this crime.

The Round House (2012) by Louise Erdrich: Erdrich’s National Book Award winning novel tells the story of 13-year-old Joe’s quest for justice in the aftermath of an assault on his mother on their Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. The richness of the novel is nicely summed up in its National Book Award citation: “Erdrich has created an intricately layered novel that not only untangles our nation’s history of moral and judicial failure, but also offers a portrait of a community sustained by its traditions, values, faith, and stories.”

NW (2012) by Zadie Smith: In this novel, Smith paints a portrait of contemporary London through the eyes of a group of characters linked by the shared history of growing up in a housing estate in the city’s northwest. One of the key characters is barrister Natalie Blake who confronts sexism and racism in the legal profession, and struggles with the gulf between the world in which she grew up and the one she inhabits now to which law has, in part, provided a conduit. The picture that emerges of London, of the legal profession, and of Natalie is complex and challenging.

I could very easily add twenty more books to this list, but I said ten so I’ll stop there. But I also said preliminary, so I invite you to add your own favourites in the comments below, and also any reflections you may have on the books I’ve highlighted here. I would be very happy to come away with some new titles to add to my summer reading!

IFLS Book Club: Zadie Smith’s N.W.

Women Lawyers in Literature (in anticipation of the 1st meeting of the Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction reading group)

Lists of top or greatest or favourite fictional lawyers seem to appear at regular intervals, for example, the ABA Journal’s 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers Who Are Not Atticus Finch, or the Guardian’s Top 10 Lawyers in Fiction (selected by novelist Simon Lelic). Such lists generally feature few or no women lawyers, and those that make the cut tend to be drawn from films or television programs rather than books. For example, the two women included in the ABA’s list of 25 are Ally McBeal and Patty Hewes (of Damages). Where are the women lawyers of literature?

Certainly in seeking to identify the most noteworthy fictional female lawyers, one has a smaller pool from which to draw. In a 1994 article, “In Portia’s Footsteps: Women Lawyers in Literature,” Marion Dixon concluded that after Portia’s appearance in Shakespeare’s 1598 play Merchant of Venice, “there don’t appear to have been any fictional women lawyers in English literature until the 1980′s.” (And, of course, as Dixon notes, despite her name having become synonymous with women lawyers, Portia wasn’t actually a lawyer.) Surely the occasional one must have found her way into 20th century literature pre-1980, but I confess that no names spring immediately to mind. But as the number of women in the legal profession began to increase, so too did the ranks of fictional female lawyers.

The only two scholarly articles that I’ve found squarely on the topic of the representation of women lawyers in literature (as opposed to on television or in film)—the aforementioned piece by Dixon, and one by Kathryn Lee and Elizabeth Morgan titled “Legal Fictions and the Moral Imagination: Female Fictional Lawyers Encounter Professional Responsibility”—focus on crime fiction. The first examples that occurred to me also come from this genre: Alafair Burke’s series featuring Portland Deputy DA Samantha Kincaid, Linda Fairstein’s series featuring Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Alexandra Cooper, and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring Reykjavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir.

Another of my favourite genres, the short story, has also proved rich territory in this connection. Thus when we decided to make women lawyers the theme of our first Law, Feminism, [short] Fiction discussion, there were many stories from which to choose. Ultimately we settled on three stories by three very different writers that offer a range of representations of women lawyers: “Weight,” by Margaret Atwood; “The Mother,” by Michele Martinez; and, “His Sister,” by Ruthann Robson.

Margaret Atwood is a towering literary figure who needs little introduction. Perhaps worth noting in this context though is the fact that her work has garnered much interest among legal scholars, in particular The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that depicts a Christian fundamentalist society in which reproduction is entirely state-controlled, and Alias Grace, a historical novel based on an 1843 murder case. But our focus next week will be her short story “Weight,” first published in her 1991 collection Wilderness Tips, which has at its centre two women, the narrator and her friend Molly, who attended law school at a time when women students were still an embattled minority, and bonded over shared feminist values and aspirations, but whose career paths and lives have diverged dramatically by the time the story begins.

Michele Martinez, formerly a federal prosecutor, is the author of a series of legal thrillers featuring Manhattan federal prosecutor Melanie Vargas. Vargas is also the protagonist of “The Mother,” a short story published in a 2009 anthology, in which she is forced to rethink an apparent legal victory after being confronted by the mother of a young man whom she is prosecuting for murder.

Ruthann Robson is a professor at CUNY School of Law as well as a fiction writer. She is an extraordinarily prolific writer in both realms, as well as an innovative one whose work might sometimes be characterized as falling somewhere in between the two. Her short stories and novels are peopled by a number of intriguing law student, law professor, and lawyer characters. “His Sister,” from her 2000 collection The Struggle for Happiness, focuses on Jolene Fields, director of the Criminal Defense Resource Center. As a law student, Fields had loved research and hated mooting, and finds herself now “amazed at the privilege of being able to ‘do’ criminal defense work and never walk into a courtroom.” But the story ultimately reveals her rather more complicated relationship to criminal law and with the criminal defense attorneys for whom she does research.

Osgoode folk who would like to join in a discussion of these three stories next week can find details about the meeting time and place on the IFLS blog.

Whether or not you’re able to join the discussion in person, I would be most grateful for any help you can provide in the comments below in my quest to compile a more comprehensive list of women lawyers in literature. In addition to those mentioned above there is Ruth Puttermesser from Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers; Judge Josie Jo Ford from children’s classic The Westing Game; an array of compelling women law students, lawyers, and judges in Lowell B. Komie’s short stories; criminal lawyer Cass Jameson from Carolyn Wheat’s mystery series; the lawyers of all-female firm Rosato & Associates featured in Lisa Scottoline’s series of legal thrillers; and, barristers Selena Jardine and Julia Larwood from Sarah Caudwell’s series of legal whodunnits. Who else?

New on my Bookshelf: Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

I confess that there are a number of classics in the law and literature canon that I’ve not yet read, and I’ve resolved to fill in some of those gaps, beginning with Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. The number of law journal articles that reference the story, and the frequency with which it turns up on the syllabi of law and literature courses would be reason enough to begin there. But I have a more specific interest as well. I’ve been plotting an article about Louis Auchincloss’s short stories, many of which are set in Wall Street law firms, and, given that Melville’s Bartleby is subtitled “A Story of Wall Street,” it seems an antecedent that I ought to explore.

But even if I hadn’t already resolved to read Bartleby, a couple of recent mentions highlighting the continuing relevance of this mid-nineteenth century work would doubtless have piqued my interest. The first is in a thought-provoking essay by Hannah Gersen at The Millions in which she links Bartleby’s “peculiar form of rebellion” to the Occupy Wall Street protests, ultimately concluding: “If Occupy Wall Street has any goal, it should be to have the same effect that great literature has—to unsettle.” The second is a reference in a Forbes column by Victoria Pynchon in which she parallels Bartleby’s situation with the contemporary plight of legal secretaries. (Thanks to Sonia Lawrence who led me to the latter with an @OsgoodeIFLS tweet.)

The edition of Bartleby the Scrivener that I bought, pictured above, is an instalment in Melville House Publishing’s marvellous Art of the Novella series. They’re lovely small books that feel good in the hand, and the selection of titles is broad enough to appeal to any discerning reader. I note as well that there are others besides Bartleby that are likely be of interest to those who like a bit of law with their literature, including, for example: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Ian Dreiblatt), The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. I already boast a few Melville House novellas in my collection, and I covet many more!

I will report here in due course on how I fare with Bartleby, and on if and how it connects with my Auchincloss reading.

The Lawyers of Children’s Literature

I recently reconnected with a childhood friend on Facebook, and she reminded me that, at the age of ten, I was already telling anyone who asked that I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up. As it turns out, I became a law professor, but I remain a paid-up (albeit non-practicing) member of the Saskatchewan Bar, so mission accomplished, more or less. The focus of this post, though, is not the attainment of the goal but what inspired it. Where did I get the idea that a lawyer was a thing to be, and what sort of work did I envision a lawyer doing?

There are two of us now, but back then there were no lawyers in my family, or even in my family history. (Recent genealogical research has confirmed the latter perception. I’ve turned up shepherds, coalminers, steelworkers, carpenters, calico printers, tailors, domestic servants, schoolteachers, and even one errant phrenologist, but no lawyers.) Nor were there any lawyers amongst the family members of my friends. My childhood pre-dated the heyday of television legal dramas, so I don’t think that I can locate the inspiration there. I might have caught the odd Perry Mason rerun, but I was already in law school by the time L.A. Law and Street Legal arrived on the small screen.

So I can only conclude that, as is true of many of my good ideas, it came from books. But which books? Who are the lawyers of children’s literature? I have thought long and hard about my childhood reading, particularly beloved repeat reads, and I can recall only two fictional lawyers that got more than a passing mention.

The first appears in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. The novel details the adventures of eleven-year-old Claudia Kincaid when, feeling underappreciated, she runs away from her suburban Connecticut home with her nine-year-old brother Jamie in tow, and takes up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But the tale is not told by either of the youthful protagonists; the book is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an elderly, eccentric patron of the arts, in the form of a letter to Saxonberg, her lawyer of 41 years, instructing him to change her will and explaining why she wishes him to do so. Throughout, Mrs. Frankweiler represents Saxonberg as no friend of the arts. He’s dull and boring, caring only for law, taxes, and his grandchildren. He’s “never set [his] well-polished toe inside that museum,” and is “altogether unconscious of the magic of Michelangelo.” Though it is apparent by the end that this is not an entirely accurate picture, it nevertheless renders Saxonberg an unlikely role model for my ten-year-old self who had artistic as well as legal aspirations. I might credit the book with stoking my interest in museums and art galleries, and certainly with contributing to the fascination that New York City held for me decades before I ever traveled there. But I rule it out as an early impetus to pursue a legal career.

That leaves Carson Drew, “well-known lawyer,” and father to teenage sleuth Nancy Drew. But surely, I thought, Carson Drew played only a bit part in the series, keeping well in the background as parents are wont to do in children’s literature to accord child characters plenty of room for independent action. Not so, I found after a bit of rereading. Certainly he doesn’t get in the way of Nancy’s independence⎯she whisks about the countryside in that enviable blue convertible with his blessing. But he’s a solid presence and his legal work is far from an incidental detail. On the first page of the first installment of the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, we’re told that he “frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with [Nancy],” and thereafter we find that her investigations are sometimes undertaken to assist in his work. Even when her cases are not connected with his, they tend to focus on legal matters (wills, trusts, contracts, and patents, alongside the more readily anticipated counterfeiting, theft, and kidnapping), and legal information or advice from him or one of his colleagues often proves pivotal in solving the mysteries. Further, when her father praises her investigative prowess, the compliments are sometimes couched in legal terms. “‘You sound like a trial lawyer, the way you cross-examine me,’ Mr. Drew protested, but with evident enjoyment.” And later: “Excellent deducting.”

Perhaps, then, I fancied that lawyers’ work involved Nancy Drew style investigation but with a paycheque attached, and I really ought to have set my sights on a career as a private detective. If it was Nancy rather than Carson Drew who served as primary role model and inspiration, then I’m in good legal company, standing with the likes of U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Still, I can’t help but think that for me, and perhaps for them too, the legal aspect contributed to the allure.

But the notable lawyers of children’s literature must number more than two. Who have I missed? Please share any names that occur to you in the comments section below.

The Very Brief Legal Career of Robert Louis Stevenson

Last month, I wrote of lawyer-writers who successfully pursued simultaneous legal and literary careers. Robert Louis Stevenson was not one of them. Indeed, despite years of legal study at the University of Edinburgh, admittance as an advocate after passing his Scots Bar examinations “with credit,” and the above bewigged photograph (taken to please his mother), I don’t think that Stevenson can rightfully be claimed for the law at all.

Law wasn’t even his second choice after literature, but his second second choice. He came from a famous family of engineers, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, and he began in that field. But, according to biographer Claire Harman, after “four years studying at the university” and “three summers on the works,” including stints “in a carpenter’s shop, a foundry and a timberyard,” Stevenson “still couldn’t tell one kind of wood from another or make the most basic calculations.” Even his father Thomas, who so dearly wished it otherwise, had to concede that Stevenson wasn’t cut out for the family business. That is not to say, however, that he was prepared to endorse a literary career for his son.

Stevenson’s cousin Etta tells the story thus:

I happened to be in the house when Lou told his father he did not want to continue to be a civil engineer. This was a great blow and a terrible disappointment to Uncle Tom, as for generations the Stevensons had all been very clever civil engineers; and already Lou had gained medals for certain inventions of his in connection with lighthouses. And Uncle Tom was more disappointed still when Lou declared that he wanted to go in for a literary life, as Uncle Tom thought he would make nothing at that⎯in fact that it was just a sort of excuse for leading a lazy life! Eventually it was well talked over, and Uncle Tom said that if he agreed to read for the Bar in order to become an advocate, after passing the examination, if he still persisted in wishing to go in for literature, he would not prevent it, for then he would have a good sound profession at his back.

Alas, Stevenson was as indifferent a student of law as he had been of engineering. His friend Charles Guthrie (later Lord Guthrie) recalled, “we did not look for Louis at law lectures, except when the weather was bad.” Harman elaborates: “A notebook that survives from his law studies is peppered with caricatures and doodles, and the few notes there are on Roman citizenship segue with comical readiness into a much more engaging daydream containing lines of a later poem.” Andrew Murray (later Lord Dunedin), stated bluntly that, although he and Stevenson were “very good friends,” they “did not really see much of each other” even as fellow law students, for: “I was interested in my profession⎯a profession which he frankly cared nothing about.”

If, in the words of another friend, John Geddie, Stevenson paid only “desultory attention” in his law classes, he did buckle down to study for the Bar examinations. But this study awakened no new interest in the subject, and it interfered with the work that really mattered to him. In a letter to Fanny Sitwell (later his wife), dated April 1875, he lamented: “I had no time to write, and, as it is, am strangely incapable. [...] I have been reading such lots of law, and it seems to take away the power of writing from me. From morning to night, so often as I have a spare moment, I am in the embrace of a law book – barren embraces.”

Stevenson passed the examinations and was admitted to the Bar on July 14th, 1875. For a time thereafter, as was the custom, he “walk[ed] about the Parliament House five forenoons a week, in wig and gown,” seeking work from solicitors with cases before the Courts. He was not altogether unsuccessful in this endeavour. Guthrie recounted: “I do indeed remember one morning in the Parliament House, when he came dancing up to me waving a bundle of legal papers in great glee: ‘Guthrie, that simpleton So-and-so has actually sent me a case! Now I have tasted blood, idle fellows like you will see what I can do!’” But he was not offered many briefs, and he accepted even fewer. Guthrie made reference to only “four complimentary pieces of employment [Stevenson] is said to have received, the fees for which did not run into two figures.”

Stevenson wrote to Fanny that he found it “a great pleasure to sit and hear cases argued or advised,” but nevertheless bemoaned the fact that: “I lose all my forenoons at Court!” Before long, he gave up the charade and devoted himself full time to writing. The brass nameplate engraved “R.L. Stevenson, Advocate” that his parents had affixed to the door of their home at 17 Heriot Row remained, but Stevenson no longer walked the halls of Parliament House in wig and gown. In fact, he soon quitted Edinburgh, and Scotland, altogether.

Stevenson “had no natural taste for the law,” Guthrie concluded. Nor, it seems to have been generally agreed among his legal friends, did he have any particular talent for it. So Stevenson’s defection was no great loss to the law. But it was a great gain to literature. And his keen readers, among whom I count myself, can be grateful that, in the end, he chose a literary life.

Sources:

Sidney Colvin, ed., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (1900).

Lord Guthrie, Robert Louis Stevenson: Some Personal Recollections (1920).

Claire Harman, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (2005).

Rosaline Massin, ed., I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson (1922).

* The photos of Robert Louis Stevenson as an advocate, and of his doodles in lieu of note-taking (albeit from his engineering rather than his law school days) are from the digital collection of the National Library of Scotland. The photo of 17 Heriot Row is one I took myself the last time I followed Stevenson’s footsteps round Edinburgh.

A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness


A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”

Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.

At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”

But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.

This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the same southern Italian city in which the novel is set, so I’m confident that the depiction of the operation of Italian criminal law is an accurate one.) One facet of the novel that I particularly appreciated that Carofiglio has in common with some of my favourite Scandanavian crime writers is that he eschews the Hollywood version in favour of what seems a more realistic portrayal of the progress of a case through the justice system, adeptly conveying its plodding pace and bureaucratic nature without thereby producing a plodding read.

I was quickly caught up in Guerrieri’s life, and in Thiam’s fate, and found Involuntary Witness overall to be an always interesting, sometimes riveting, and ultimately very satisfying read. Carofiglio has written four novels featuring Guerrieri as the central character, three of which have so far been published in English translation, with the final one due out later this year. I am very much looking forward to continuing on to read the rest.

Lawyer-Writers: Louis Auchincloss’s Compromise


The first fiction that I assign in my Law and Literature class each year is a couple of stories by lawyer-writers. I do this partly to provide inspiration to students who are writers and who fear that embarking on a legal career will mean abandoning their literary aspirations. But mostly, because it seems to me that one of the best ways to begin an exploration of the connections and tensions between law and literature is in the company of guides who straddle the boundary. On both counts, Louis Auchincloss fits the bill perfectly.

Auchincloss, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, spent forty years practicing law in a Wall Street firm, and also published more than sixty books in his lifetime, including forty-seven works of fiction. His star has never burned as brightly in the literary firmament as those of fellow New Yorkers Edith Wharton and Henry James, but his work garners sufficient respect that his name is sometimes mentioned alongside theirs.

As he revealed in his 1964 memoir, A Writer’s Capital, by virtue of his family, Auchincloss felt himself situated at the intersection of law and literature almost from birth. His father practiced corporate law at a single New York firm for fifty-seven years, and his mother was “an omnivorous reader” whose “literary opinions were pungent, incisive, always interesting,” and she was a skilled storyteller besides.

That’s not to say that law and literature fell into an easy accord for Auchincloss in adulthood. He spent many years zigzagging between the two pursuits. Initially, he doubted his literary powers, and was all but resigned to the idea that it was his destiny to follow his father into the legal profession: “I believed … that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius, that he should not kick over the traces unless a resounding artistic success, universally recognized, should justify his otherwise ridiculous deviation. The world might need second-class lawyers and doctors; it did not need a second-class artist.” Perhaps it’s not surprising then that when his first novel, written as a Yale undergraduate, was rejected, he promptly enrolled in law school.

Auchincloss found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed the study of law: “For what was a case but a short story? What was the law but language?” For a time, his duties on law review served as a satisfying substitute for fiction writing. But once he’d graduated and taken a job in practice, the fiction bug bit again. He spent all his spare time writing and before long he had a couple of published novels under his belt. It didn’t interfere with his legal work and the partners at his firm regarded his writing good-naturedly as an interesting quirk. But if the writing didn’t interfere with his legal work, he feared that the same could not be said in reverse: “I was increasingly bothered by a nagging apprehension that I might be slighting my literary muse by not devoting myself full time to her.”

Once again, Auchincloss felt he must choose and this time he chose literature. He resigned from the firm to write full time. But after only a couple of years, he realized that this was a failed experiment: “To sum up the account of my nonlegal years, they added nothing to my stature as a writer. The main thing about them, of course, was to have been time, but even that proved an undependable friend. My writing hours increased, but both the quantity and quality of my writing remained the same.”

Auchincloss continued to write but also returned to practice: “People ask me how I manage to write and practice…. All I can say is that a great step was taken when I ceased to think of myself as a ‘lawyer’ or a ‘writer.’ I simply was doing what I was doing when I did it.” He termed this a “compromise” but it seems to me that it was something more than that. For it wasn’t simply a matter of allowing the two to co-exist, but of recognizing that both were of central importance to him and that, ultimately, they fed each other. He chose to practice in an area of law rich in human drama that offered inspiration for his fiction: “It is probably not a coincidence that my work has been largely with people and personal problems: planning of wills, of estates, setting up trusts, handling marital separations, divorces, as opposed to the more impersonal matters of corporate or municipal financing.” And in several of his novels and stories, he shone a light back on his legal milieu, creating incisive portraits of law firms and lawyers.

Much of Auchincloss’s fiction has no overt legal content, including the novel that many critics regard as his best, The Rector of Justin. (Although even here there is a legal footnote, as Auchincloss once revealed that he based the main character on Judge Learned Hand⎯yes, he of the formula that still lies at the heart of negligence law.) If you’ve not yet encountered Auchincloss’s work, you may wish to start there. But if you’re interested in his legal stories, I recommend the suite of stories in Tales of Manhattan about the firm of Arnold and Degener; the “loose-leaf novel” The Partners; and his final novel, Last of the Old Guard.

* The photograph of Louis Auchincloss that heads this post is taken from the cover of his posthumously published memoir, A Voice From Old New York.