Book Review of Street Lawyer by John Grisham
Related Works: Lawyer characters in mystery/thrillers
Related Works: Homeless characters in mystery novels
Other mystery books that deal with homelessness
Article on Homeless Characters in Mysteries
Interview with G.M. Ford

Book Review

Street Lawyer
by John Grisham

Review by Anitra L. Freeman
previously published in Real Change

I have written several book reviews for Real Change, a street-newspaper dealing with poverty issues. I had absolutely no intention of ever doing a book review for a John Grisham novel. John Grisham just doesn't need it, you know? About any book he writes is a best-seller, often becoming a popular movie besides. Street Lawyer is into its second month on the bestseller list, and is probably headed for the movie screen. The 30,000/month circulation of Real Change isn't going to provide make/break publicity for John Grisham -- and surely there are more meaningful books for our activist publication to give space to?

To me, it is meaningful that one of the best-selling authors in America has chosen to do a book that focuses on homelessness. He researched this book thoroughly, including spending much time in Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. An author like John Grisham makes a living by knowing what people want, what they will buy. If John Grisham has decided that the American public wants a novel that portrays poor and homeless people sympathetically, that scorns such policies as criminalization of the homeless and "street sweeps" -- then I think that is news for an activist publication.

I am on a mystery book discussion list also: one of the members, Brenda Severa, said of this book, "I really enjoyed it. Wasn't the typical run and chase that his first couple books were!! It really makes you stop and think about the homeless."

The main character in the novel, Michael Brock, is not as deep and rounded a character as the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird. The storyline is standard Grisham: young and successful lawyer on the fast track comes up against wicked corporate corruption; after thrills and chills, virtue triumphs and the wicked get their comeuppance. (I hope that I am not spoiling the novel for anyone by giving away this much.)

The framework, however, proves very apt for introducing the reader to the realities of homelessness. Michael Brock starts out reacting with a taken-for-granted disdain to a homeless man who invades his high-powered law firm's plush office setting. The homeless man proceeds to take Michael and several of his fellow lawyers hostage and rub their nose in the contrast of their income and privilege, and the poverty in the city around them -- that they have done nothing about. Michael's emotional trauma during this episode makes it believable when after the violent end of the hostage episode he searches out information about the life of "Mister", the man who had invaded and disrupted his reality. He meets a dedicated activist, who draws him in to steadily deeper involvement until his whole life is turned around. This is made a bit more believable by Grisham establishing from the beginning that Michael's marriage was in trouble, and he was basically unhappy. The ending of the story left me feeling that it was more believable, because the people that Michael is trying to help are still struggling, he is still struggling, and there is no guarantee that he has found the love of his life, either.

Along the way, Michael goes from entering a homeless shelter with the certainty that "surely somebody was going to break my neck and take my wallet", to feeling like a part of the community there. This seemed more convincing to me than having Michael Brock start out as an idealistic young liberal who wants to help all of the homeless.

Michael Allen, a member of the Homeless Discussion List, said "Patty Mullahy Fugere, the director of WLCH, is a wonderful advocate, and obviously got Grisham to see the world as it really is." As Carolyn Harris pointed out, lawyers who handle every type of law that is needed then spend their evenings preparing and serving soup in a shelter aren't very realistic. But there are quite a lot of facts and figures woven onto the novel.

In Washington DC -- where the action takes place -- as in all cities, there are at least twice as many homeless as there are shelter spaces. More is spent on "criminalization" -- sweeping up the homeless, putting them in jail or transporting the 'out of town' -- than it would cost to provide services to get everyone off the street for good. There are some success stories, giving examples of what can be done with effective help. And there are the horror stories that those of us who work in this field know by now -- the employers who hold back checks from people who don't have addresses, or lawyers; the varieties of rental rip-offs; the politicians who ride the latest fad with no regard for its effect on real people.

But there is hope in that bit about "the latest fad". One of the biggest problems in creating help for the homeless has been that the poor and the homeless are "invisible people". A great deal of effort is focused on convincing the public that all is well, the economy is booming, and the only people poor and homeless are a handful of addicts, alcoholics, and mentally ill malcontents. Most of Grisham's attention is for the addicts, alholoholics, and mentally ill -- but he also mentions all the people in the shelter who are getting up to go to work.

If this book can become a bestseller -- and if other bestselling writers, like Sara Paretsky, also write about homelessness -- the American public may start seeing the "invisible people", and seeing them as people. And our politicians may find that "the latest fad" is to provide real solutions.

WRITE ON! -- Anitra L. Freeman
Second Take:
Michele's Mom's Review of John Grisham's The Street Lawyer

by Ione Marchand

     I didn't really learn about homelessness from Grisham's book. My heart still hurts when I think about it, because I don't think I was really prepared for it...but the term "homeless" was redefined for me a few years back when I walked into Noel House--the women's shelter--and saw women spending the night there who could have been my sister or mother or me.
     They could be called "bag ladies" by definition since this is virtually their only means of keeping their possessions. But they didn't fit the prevailing stereotype--they are the "homeless;" and most are victims of circumstances beyond their control. There but for the grace of God go I!
     The Street Lawyer does not measure up to the enlightenment of this experience. Nor does it measure up to Grisham's other books in terms of suspense, intrigue or plot. He does little to develop his characters. The story lacks subplots.
     I believe what he was trying to bring out in The Street Lawyer is the current trend for people--like his main character Michael Brock--to re-evaluate their high-powered, stressful jobs and turn to a low-keyed existence that includes volunteer work or jobs assisting the disadvantaged--in this case, "street people."
     In the book Grisham pricks some consciences and brings some awareness to this segment of our society.

Mysteries in which a lawyer is a main character:

NOTE: the Grisham novels aren't exactly mysteries, definitely not detective stories. The Mystery-B discussion group went looking for novels featuring lawyers that were more sleuth-oriented. the following is what we came up with: if you have any further suggestions, please send to Anitra.

     What is the first name you think of in association with "lawyer" and "mystery"? If it wasn't either author Erle Stanley Gardner or his character Perry Mason (at least from TV), please write and tell me who it was.

A more-or-less chronological list of legal mysteries

The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, by Melville Davisson Post, was originally published in 1896.
This is a hard-to-classify series of stories: Randolph Mason is a lawyer who gets his clients off, not by revealing the truth, but by any means necessary.
Where Judge Dee falls in the chronology is also hard to classify. To quote from the Trout Works site: "The real-life Judge Dee lived and solved crimes in T'ang China (7th century); this collection of mysteries [Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee] featuring him was written in the Ming Dynasty a thousand years later. Robert van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat, found a copy of the book in 1940 and translated it for his own amusement while interned by the Japanese during WWII. After the war, he wrote a whole series of sequels..."
The Chinese Nail Murders
The Chinese Bell Murders, 1958
The Chinese Gold Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders
Dee Goong An (aka Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee)
The Emperor's Pearl
The Haunted Monastery
Judge Dee at Work
The Lacquer Screen
The Monkey and the Tiger
Murder in Canton
Necklace and Calabash
The Phantom of the Temple

Poets and Murder (aka The Fox-Magic Murders)
The Red Pavilion
The Willow Pattern

Raymond William Postgate's 1940 novel, Verdict of Twelve
was more a novel of social psychology than a mystery.
An early version of a legal thriller was Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie.
Rumpole of the Bailey
was the first British entry to the legal mystery scene.
Perry Mason, as listed above,
was the first American entry to be unequivocally a legal mystery series.
Michael Gilbert published Smallbone Deceased, another British entry, in 1950.
Gilbert also wrote The Queen Against Karl Mullen, in 1991.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, 1960
Not usually thought of in the same context as "legal mystery/courtroom drama" -- yet it is indeed that, and more.
Paul Levine published
To Speak for the Dead in the same year, 1960
Night Vision 1992
False Dawn 1993
Mortal Sin 1994
Slashback 1995
Fool Me Twice 1996
Flesh and Bones 1997
9 Scorpions 1998
Joe Hensley wrote
The Song of Corpus Juris, 1974
The Poison Summer, 1974
Rivertown Risk, 1977
A Killing in Gold
Minor Murders
Outcasts, 1981
Final Doors, 1981
Rubak's Cross, 1985
Rubak's Fire, 1986
Color Him Guilty
Fort's Law
Robak's Firm, 1987
Robak's Run
Grim City
Robak's Witch, 1997
Lose Coins, 1998 (with Guy M. Townsend
Richard North Patterson received the Edgar Award for The Lasko Tangent in 1979, then reappeared with a bang in 1993 and has been going strong since.
The Lasko Tangent (first printed in 1979)
Degree of Guilt (first printed 1993)
Private Screening, 1993
Eyes of a Child, 1995
The Outside Man, 1995
The Final Judgement, 1995
Silent Witness, 1997
No Safe Place, 1998 (a political thriller, but with a walk-on part for the recurring charcters from former novels, Tony Lord and his wife)
Dark Lady, 1999 (A novel about a stadium scandal! Must go on my TBR list!)
Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Cauldwell, 1981
is another British entry (these seem few, from the U.S. side of the water, but excellent). Amazon doesn't classify this as a legal mystery, but should.
Anatomy of a Murder, 1983, by Robert Traver
might be credited with setting the standard for the genre of courtroom drama.
Robert Traver has another: People Versus Kirk
Sara Woods published an extensive series about attorney Anthony Maitland:
all currently out of print.
Carolyn Wheat has a lawyer background.
Her first legal mystery about Legal Aid attorney Cass Jameson was published in 1983. She is still publishing.
George V. Higgins has three novels about Jerry Kennedy, the "best sleazy lawyer in Boston" and one off-series legal thriller:
The Judgement of Deke Hunter
Kennedy for the Defense
Penance for Jerry Kennedy
Defending Billy Ryan: A Jerry Kennedy Novel
Next to publish legal mysteries was E.X. Giroux
with his series character attorney Robert Forsythe.
Michael Nava has published a number of novels examining gay rights in America. Some do so in a legal mystery setting.
The Little Death, 1986
The Hidden Law, 1992
How Town, 1994 Reprint
The Death of Friends, 1996
The Burning Plain, 1998
William G. Tapply has published sixteen mystery novels
featuring Brady Coyne, a Boston attorney serving a wealthy clientele.
Robert K. Tannenbaum's Assistant District Attorney Butch Karp
deals with the meaner streets of Manhattan in a series that starts with No Lesser Plea, 1987.
The best-seller book, blockbuster movie succes of Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow, in 1987 really triggered the flood of courtroom drama/legal thriller. Scott Turow is also an attorney, whose first book, One L, was an account of his first year at Harvard law school. After Presumed Innocent he continued his strong legal thrillers with:
The Burden of Proof
Pleading Guilty
The Laws of Our Fathers
Personal Injuries
and edited the Mystery Writer of America anthology of legal system stories, Guilty As Charged
Lia Matera began her legal novels, most appropriately, with Where Lawyers Fear to Tread (1987) when Willa Jansson's last year of law school is nearly cut short by multiple murders of law review editors.
Both of her lawyer characters, Willa Jansson and Lauri DiPalma, continue to practice.
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey
is nothing like a "legal thriller" or "courtroom drama" -- the main mystery is whether there is a mystery.
Ralph M. McInerny, who also wrote the Father Dowling series
had a series of cute punning titles about lawyer Andrew Bloom. The first was in 1987. The latest is Heirs and Parents, 2000.
J.P. Hailey wrote
The Baxter Trust, The Underground Man, The Naked Typist, The Wrong Gun and The Anonymous Client.
John Grisham
has been one of the most prolific authors in the lawyer-thriller genre, beginning with The Firm. The Street Lawyer is reviewed above; more reviews at Amazon.
Ronald Levitsky featured a civil rights lawyer, Nate Rosen, in four novels:
The Truth That Kills, The Love That Kills, The Spirit That Kills and Stone Boy.
Frederick D. Huebner has a series with lawyer Matt Riordan (this is also a Pacific Northwest location series)
I have read and enjoyed Picture Postcard (1990), but all the books sem to be out of print, and hard to find.
Someone I want to find: Charles Sevilla, author of Disorder in the Court: Great Fractured Moments in Courtroom History (1999) wrote two earlier fictional accounts of courtroom absurdity that are now out of print:
Wilkes, 1990
Wilkes on Trial, 1993
Wilkes : His Life and Crimes, 1994 (?)
Cry of Shadows (1990) by Ed Gorman; main character - lawyer Jack Dwyer
is another book I've had recommended, but never found.
John Lescroart entered the legal mystery field in 1991 (after a couple of earlier (and out of print) mystery novels including Son of Holmes). Most of his legal thrillers feature Dismas Hardy, a dart-playing, saloon-keeping lawyer.
The Vig, originally printed in 1991, was reprinted in 1998
Hard Evidence, 1992
The 13th Juror, 1994
A Certain Justice, 1995
Guilt, 1998
The Mercy Rule, 1999
Nothing But the Truth, 2000
Julie Smith has several characters; Rebecca Schwartz is a lawyer:
Dead in the Water, 1991
Death Turns a Trick, 1992
Tourist Trap, 1992
Other People's Skeletons, 1994
The Sourdough Wars, 1994
William Barnhardt began the career of attorney Ben Kincaid in 1992.
Primary Justice, 1992
Blind Justice, 1992
Deadly Justice, 1993
Perfect Justice, 1995
Double Jeopardy, 1996
Cruel Justice, 1997
Naked Justice, 1997
Extreme Justice, 1998
Legal Briefs, 1998, Editor: anthology of stories by author-attorneys
The Midnight Before Christmas, 1998
Dark Justice, 1999
Silent Justice, 2000
Kate Wilhelm is an award-winning science fiction writer who crosses many genres, including mainstream fiction, psychological suspense and humor. Her lawyer character Barbara Holloway was introduced in a cross-genre legal suspense novel with sf complications, and has carried on.
Death Qualified, 1992
The Best Defense
For the Defense
Defense for the Devil
No Defense
and Judge Sarah Drexler in Justice for Some
Bestselling crime author Ridley Pearson
crossed into the legal genre with Probable Cause in 1992.
Dana Stabenow's character Kate Shugak is an anomaly, belonging more truly under the category of Female P.I.
I mention her here because she was an investigator for the Anchorage D.A.'s office before she burned out and moved to the Aleut peninsula. Her first adventure,Fire and Ice, was published in 1992.
Gini Hartzmark introduced her attorney Katharine Millholland in 1992 with
Principal Defense, followed by
Bitter Business, 1995
Fatal Reaction, 1998
Rough Trade, 1999
Dead Certain, 2000
Lisa Scottoline is an experienced trial lawyer who has written seven legal thrillers, beginning with Everywhere That Mary Went in 1993.
The most recent is Moment of Truth.
Steve Martini has been one of the strongest authors in the legal mystery field since the introduction of his attorney character Paul Madriani in 1993:
Compelling Evidence (introduction of Paul Madriani)
Prime Witness
Undue Influence (possibly the best)
The Simeon Chamber (off-series)
The Judge (a wish-fulfillment dream for all those following the series)
The List (off-series)
Critical Mass (off-series)
The Attorney (back to Paul Madriani!)
Bestselling junk-food-fiction provider Michael Crichton provided a legal-thriller-turned-movie
with Disclosure in 1994.
Nancy Taylor Rosenburg, a former police officer, began her legal action thrillers in 1993
Mitigating Circumstances (Assistant District Attorney Lily Forrester)
Interest of Justice, 1994 (Judge Lara Sanderstone)
First Offense, 1995 (Probation officer Ann Carlisle)
Trial by Fire, 1996 (D.A. Stella Cataloni)
Abuse of Power (this tale of abuse of police power never gets to the courtroom)
Barbara Parker was a prosecutor for the Dade County State Attorney's office. She has written a series starring Miami attorney Gail Connor, and other out-of-series legal thrillers.
Suspicion of Innocence, 1994 (Gail Connor)
Suspicion of Guilt, 1996 (Gail Connor)
Blood Relations, 1997 (Sam Hagen)
Criminal Justice, 1998 (Dan Galindo)
Suspicion of Deceit, 1999 (Gail Connor)
Suspicion of Betrayal, 2000 (Gail Connor)
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey) was published in English in 1994.
William Diehl has two Martin Vail novels:
Show of Evil, 1995
Primal Fear, 1996
Dexter Dias
False Witness, 1995
Error of Judgement, 1996
Sarah Gregory:
In Self Defense, 1995 (Betsy Hayes)
Public Trust, 1997 (Sharon Hays)
The Best Defense, 1999 (Sharon Hays)
Capitol Scandal, 1999 (Sharon Hays)
Catherine Arnold:
Due Process, 1996 (Karen Perry-Mondori)
Imperfect Justice, 1997 (Karen Perry-Mondori)
Wrongful Death, 1999 (Karen Perry-Mondori)
Class Action, 1996 (Karen Perry-Mondori)
David Baldacci, a lawyer-turned-novelist:
Absolute Power, 1996
Total Control, 1997 Reprint
The Simple Truth, 1999
Murder of a Dead Man by Katherine John, 1997 Reprint
The Last Client of Luis Montez by Manuel Ramos, 1996
Jean Hanff Korelitz
A Jury of Her Peers, 1997
Sabbathday River, 1999
Marianne Wesson
Render Up the Body, 1997
A Suggestion of Death
Conflict of Interest by Terry Lewis, 1997
The Defense by Dudley W. Buffa, 1997
The Long Rain by Peter Gadol, 1997
Ann Perry has many books on our historical mysteries list.
One is also a legal mystery: The Silent Cry, 1997
Rosemary Aubert's books featuring Judge Ellis Portal
Free Reign (1997)
and its sequel The Feast of St Stephen (1999), relate to both lawyers and homelessness.
Dealing with other social issues: The Best Defense by Ellis Cose, 1998
Penny Mickelbury's series character Carole Ann Gibson is a lawyer:
One Must Wait, 1998
Where to Choose, 1999
The Step Between, 2000
Barry Siegel:
Perfect Witness, 1998
Actual Innocence, 1999
In the Cold Light of Day by Ann Williams, 1998.
The Expert by Lee Gruenfeld, 1998
Chain of Custody by Harry Levy, 1998
Perjury by Stan Latreille, 1998
The Stalking of Sheilah Quinn by Jeremiah F. Healy, 1998
Terri Blackstock takes the moral stand of many legal mysteries one step farther; her books are billed as "Christian Mystery".
Justifiable Means, 1998
Shadow of Doubt, 1998
Shadow of Doubt, 1998
Ulterior Motives, 1998
The Caverel Claim by Peter Rawlinson, 1998
John A. Miller seems to intend a series: hios fist book is billed as " A Claude McCutcheon Novel"
Causes of Action, 1999
The Farewell Principle by Steven J. Weiss, 1999
Jeffrey Ashford
A Web of Circumstances, 1999
Mean Time, edited by Jerry Sykes, 1999, is an anthology.
Guilty Addictions by Garrett Wilson, 1999, is billed as "A Political Mystery"
The Holding Company by David Crump, 2000
Fault Lines by Natasha Cooper, 2000

Mystery-B member Gretchen Springer says:

One of my favorite mystery series is about English Barrister Anthony Maitland by Sara Woods. There are 48 books in this series. If you haven't tried them, please do.

I have been told that Carolyn Wheat's female lawyer Cass Jameson series is good also.

Gretchen also contributed the following list:

Matthew Bernhardt's Ben Kincaid: first novel in series PRIMARY JUSTICE (1991); there are 7 more.

E. X. Giroux  has an English barrister as the main character, Robert Forsythe. First novel: A DEATH FOR ADONIS (1984); there are 9 more.

J. P Hailey's Steve Winslow: BAXTER TRUST (1988) and 4 more.

Paul Levine's Luke Lassiter series: TO SPEAK FOR THE DEAD (1990), 6 more.

Ed McBain's Matthew Hope: GOLDILOCKS (1978), 11 more.

Ralph McInerny's Andrew Broom mysteries: CAUSE AND EFFECT (1987), 2 more.

D.R. Meredith's Lloyd Brarson: MURDER BY IMPULSE (1988), 4 more.

Margaret Millar's Tom Aragon: ASK FOR ME TOMORROW (1976), 2 more.

Michael Nava's Henry Rios: THE LITTLE DEATH (1986), 5 more.

Perri O'Shaughnessy's The Nina Reilly(?) Cases: MOTION TO SUPPRESS (1995), 3 more.

Barbara Parker's Gail Conner: SUSPICION OF INNOCENCE (1994), 1 more.

Carroll Lachnit's Hannah Barlow, ex-cop/law student/lawyer: MURDER IN BRIEF (1995), A BLESSED DEATH (1996).

Other References:
Mystery Guide: Legal subgenre page
Sisters In Law

Mystery-B Index Page

Anitra's Favorite Mysteries

Anitra's Home Page