From international blockbusters to hidden gems, these classic legal thrillers deliver unbeatable courtroom drama without requiring you to report for jury duty.
By David Adams
Next month, Celadon will publish M. T. Edvardsson’s A Nearly Normal Family, the gripping story of a criminal defense attorney forced to ask if her 18-year-old daughter could have committed a brutal murder. In anticipation, we’re revisiting the 10 best legal thrillers of all time. From international blockbusters to hidden gems, these classics deliver unbeatable courtroom drama without requiring you to report for jury duty.
When a beautiful and ambitious colleague is found murdered in her apartment, Rožat “Rusty” Sabich, chief deputy prosecuting attorney of Kindle County, Illinois, takes the case. But Carolyn Polhemus wasn’t just a co-worker—she was also Rusty’s lover. As evidence of the affair comes to light, Rusty goes from lead prosecutor to prime suspect; soon he’s on trial for his life. Is he an innocent bystander or a cold-blooded killer? You won’t know until you turn the final pages of Scott Turow’s brilliant debut novel, which combines deep philosophical insight, authentic details about the inner workings of a big-city courtroom, and a propulsive mystery plot that sets the gold standard for the modern legal thriller.
The daughter of a lawyer, Harper Lee was fascinated by the criminal justice system—she helped her good friend Truman Capote research In Cold Blood, and, as is revealed in the new book Furious Hours, came close to completing her own work of true crime. It’s no wonder, then, that this beloved coming-of-age classic contains some of the most riveting courtroom scenes in American fiction, as Atticus Finch defends his client, Tom Robinson, from the false accusation that he raped a white woman. For millions of readers all over the world, Atticus is the embodiment of what a good lawyer should be—trustworthy, fair, and willing to stand up for what’s right, no matter the personal cost.
Leave it to John Grisham to turn Xerox-ing into a nail-biting adventure. Few authors would attempt such a feat, but then again, few authors have published a new international bestseller every year for the past 30 years. Grisham’s astonishing run of success began with this story of a Harvard Law School graduate, who uncovers dirty secrets at a Memphis law firm. With the FBI, the Mafia, and the firm’s homicidal head of security breathing down his neck, Mitch McDeere makes a dash for—where else?—the Xerox machine. With its breakneck pace and keen awareness of the temptations that come with the power to bend the law to your will, The Firm launched Grisham into the stratosphere of thriller writers.
In this 1958 bestseller often credited as the first legal thriller, US Army Lieutenant Frederic “Manny” Manion confesses to murdering an innkeeper but claims that the man raped his wife. When attorney Paul Biegler learns that Manion has no memory of pulling the trigger, he pursues a novel defense strategy: not guilty by reason of “irresistible impulse,” a version of temporary insanity. The legal jousting between Biegler and the prosecution is made all the more riveting by its firm basis in reality, proving that there are few places on earth more inherently dramatic than a courtroom.
Mickey Haller is a Los Angeles attorney whose “office” is the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car. He also happens to be the half-brother of Michael Connelly’s other iconic creation: LAPD detective Harry Bosch. When Haller agrees to defend a wealthy realtor accused of assault, he expects to rack up a small fortune in billable hours. Instead, he comes face-to-face with pure evil. To save an innocent man’s life, Haller will have to bend the law to its breaking point. Full of gritty details, dark humor, and high-stakes action, The Lincoln Lawyer announced Connelly as a major player in the legal thriller game.
Set in a small New Mexico town in 1923, this New York Times bestseller dramatizes the clash between frontier justice and the ethical imperatives of the modern courtroom. When Bryan Talbot is convicted of murdering his adulterous wife, 29-year-old judge Ben Lewis must carry out the death sentence, despite his strong misgivings about the case. But a shocking turn of events will force Lewis to reckon not just with his duty to the law, but with his own fate. Author Stephen Becker counted fellow writers John Irving, Joe Haldeman, and Michael Chabon among his many admirers.
Frequently compared to Presumed Innocent, this thriller also features a prosecuting attorney who’s more intimately involved with a murder case than he initially lets on. Here, though, assistant district attorney Andy Barber isn’t the accused killer—his 14-year-old son Jacob is. The victim was a classmate of Jacob’s and a bully, but Andy would rather the police focus their investigation on a local pedophile. When new evidence emerges, however, Jacob is arrested and brought to trial.
Landay, a former prosecutor, brings an intimate knowledge of the law to the courtroom scenes and paints a devastating portrait of a family in crisis. But it’s the novel’s terrifying final twist that will keep you up at night.
Bennie Rosato, head of an all-female law firm, has built her career on taking down dirty cops. So when her newest client, accused cop-killer Alice Connolly, says that her murdered police detective boyfriend was dealing drugs, Bennie believes her. What the crusading attorney has a harder time accepting is Alice’s claim that she and Bennie are identical twins. A DNA test will solve the mystery, but in the meantime, Bennie has to save Alice from the electric chair. Mistaken Identity is a standout entry in the Rosato & Associates series, which consistently delivers thrills, romance, and intense courtroom scenes.
Years ago, Judge Oliver Garland’s Supreme Court nomination was derailed by his connections to a rogue CIA agent. When the judge dies, it falls to his son, Talcott, to handle his “final arrangements.” Following a trail of cryptic clues, Talcott unlocks the hidden links between his father’s public humiliation, his sister’s death in a hit-and-run accident, and a network of corruption that reaches into the highest corridors of power.
Carter, a Yale Law School professor, fills every chapter with insider knowledge about the federal court system and the rarified world of New England’s black upper class, making The Emperor of Ocean Park one of the most eye-opening legal thrillers of the past 20 years.
Gates Hunt is a career criminal; his brother Mason is a successful lawyer with a loving wife and daughter. When Gates draws a long prison sentence for selling cocaine to an undercover cop, he tries to save himself by implicating Mason in an unsolved murder. The problem is, Gates is telling the truth—or half of it, anyway.
A circuit court judge in rural Stuart, Virginia, Clark based this profound and frequently funny story on one of his cases. The author finds a rich vein of material in the discrepancies between the letter of the law and the true nature of justice, and his electric prose reads like a cross between Elmore Leonard and John Grisham.